'Alive in France': Film Review | Cannes 2017

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
An Antiques Roadshow with too many bum notes.

Controversial cult filmmaker Abel Ferrara turns grizzled rock singer in this self-directed concert documentary, which premieres in Cannes.

The crosstown traffic between directing movies and making music has a long, rich history. While pop legends including Prince, David Byrne, Ice Cube, Madonna and Neil Young have all spent time behind the camera, iconic directors like Woody Allen, John Carpenter, David Lynch and Emir Kusturica have stepped into the spotlight to turn their musical sidelines into concert tours and documentaries.

So it feels natural that Abel Ferrara should now join their ranks by directing and starring in Alive in France, a ragged rockumentary about a series of live concerts he played last year, which premieres today in the Directors' Fortnight strand in Cannes. The 65-year-old director of Bad Lieutenant and Pasolini is arguably the nearest thing in modern cinema to a grizzled old rocker in the Keith Richards mold. His uncompromising films radiate the kind of hard-knuckled, street-level, outlaw-hipster attitude that frequently blurs the line between intoxicating danger and sloppy self-indulgence.

And so it proves with Alive in France, a typically disheveled Ferrara production that is more interested in verite-style raw observation than in winning over casual fans with innovation, artistry or journalistic rigor. Scholarly cinephiles and punk-rock purists who fetishize a certain kind of old-school bluesman authenticity may find engaging material here, but the shapeless home-movie feel and sketchy lack of context ultimately borders on self-sabotage. Much like Keith Richards, Ferrara seems to be coasting along on his antique badass reputation here. Beyond the Cannes bubble, audience interest is unlikely to extend beyond festivals and small-screen cultists.

Alive in France was shot in Toulouse and Paris in October 2016, when Ferrara performed three rare shows with his regular musical collaborators and score composers Joe Delia and Paul Hipp to accompany a touring retrospective of his films entitled "Addiction at Work". His young wife, actress Cristina Chiriac, also briefly joins the band onstage while the couple's cherubic baby daughter Anna makes a sweet cameo as part of the backstage entourage.

Opening with a howling squall of bluesy folk-rock, Ferrara drops us straight into a loosely structured sprawl of live performances, rehearsals and offstage conversations. In between, he shoots himself giving promotional interviews and roaming the streets of Toulouse trying to hustle interest in the concert, mostly encountering baffled indifference from fresh-faced French college students with no idea who this craggy old New Yorker might be. "They remind me of me at their age," Ferrara shrugs with a pained grin.

The meat of the film is the songs themselves, a mixtape selection of cover versions and originals stretching right back to Ferrara's 1979 feature debut Driller Killer. The quality levels vary but most are grounded in vintage saloon-bar rock, grungy and unpolished. Hollow-eyed and vulpine, with a voice as dry as Biblical parchment, Ferrara proves to be a surprisingly magnetic frontman as he rasps his way through gangsta rapper Schoolly D's s "Just Another Killer" (as used in Dangerous Game) and his own new composition "Put it in Writing," an incongruously tender ballad inspired by the Boston marathon bombers.

Other musical highlights include Hipp's performance of his self-penned "Midnight For You," first heard on the China Girl soundtrack, a sweeping blast of windswept Americana with a strong Bruce Springsteen influence. Elsewhere there are vocal echoes of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, plus lyrical nods to the New York Dolls and Ramones. The Stones in their ramshackle prime are another clear inspiration. As Ferrara candidly tells one reporter when quizzed about his movie scores: "Probably if we had the money we'd just use the best Rolling Stones songs."

Frustratingly, there could be fruitful material here for any director with the time, energy and budget to excavate it. A more diligent documentary might have framed Ferrara's musical sideline within the broader intertwined history of New York indie cinema, punk rock and hip-hop that helped define his signature lo-fi DIY aesthetic. A little archive footage, commentary from his creative peers and clips from Ferrara's movies — strangely absent here — might have made this film a worthy minor addition to his patchy canon.

Instead, Alive in France feels like one of those late-career solo albums that the guitarist of a once-famous band might make with his longtime drinking buddies. The kind of scrappy vanity project where everybody goes along for the ride, but nobody dares tell the boss when he strays into rambling self-indulgence.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight)
Production company: Bathysphere
Cast: Abel Ferrara, Joe Delia, Paul Hipp, Cristina Chiriac, Dounia Sichov, PJ Delia, Laurent Bechad
Director: Abel Ferrara
Producer: Nicolas Anthome
Cinematographer: Emmanuel Gras
Editors: Fabio Nunziata Leonardo, Daniel Bianchi
Music supervision: Thibault Deboaisne
Sales company: The Match Factory
79 minutes
 

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