‘Django’: Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Guitar hero.

Reda Kateb (‘A Prophet’) plays the world-famous jazz guitarist in this wartime biopic directed by French writer and producer Etienne Comar (‘Of Gods and Men’).

The legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt remains one of the great jazzmen to emerge from Europe in the 20th century, recording hundreds of memorable tracks during his lifetime, playing with the likes of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Coleman Hawkins, and influencing countless artists in the decades that followed his untimely death from a stroke at the age of 43. His music has also graced the soundtracks of dozens of movies, including a swath of Woody Allen films (Sweet and Lowdown is a playful hommage to him) and anything ranging from Lacombe Lucien to The Matrix.

But there’s much less known about Reinhardt’s short yet highly productive life, which is why the French biopic Django offers up a welcome, if somewhat limited, corrective. Freely adapted from a book that was already freely inspired by the musician’s story, the film focuses on the brief and tumultuous period that Reinhardt — who was of Manouche Roma origins — spent escaping the Nazis during the Second World War.

The limited framework works better than in a typical life-spanning narrative, condensing the drama into a few months while offering star Reda Kateb (A Prophet) the chance to shine in an impressively restrained performance. But this semi-fictionalized account rings false whenever it eschews reality for a WWII cloak-and-dagger intrigue, trying too hard to dazzle us with plot instead of letting the music speak for itself. Still, it’s a handsomely made affair with one of the best scores imaginable, which should help it land overseas after opening up this year’s Berlinale.

Marking the first stab at the helm for French writer-producer Etienne Comar — who penned the script for Xavier Beauvois’ 2010 Cannes Grand Prix winner Of Gods and Men — the film can feel a bit stretched at nearly two hours, though fans will appreciate that at least some of the running time is devoted to full performances of Reinhardt’s best-known work. (The tracks played in the movie were recorded by the Dutch jazz band The Rosenberg Trio, with Hell or High Water's score co-composer Warren Ellis adding an original composition based on an orchestral work written by Reinhardt after the war.)

Right off the bat, Comar sets up the film’s main premise when we see a trio of gypsy musicians jamming together in the middle of the forest, only to be hunted down and shot by the Nazis. The year is 1943 and France is under German occupation, although that doesn’t seem to bother the suave if somewhat self-effacing Django, who continues to play sold-out shows in Paris to a crowd of young jazz fans and scowling SS officers.

Reinhardt is soon persuaded by his manager (Patrick Mille) to tour Germany under the supervision of “Doctor Jazz” (Jan-Henrich Stahlberg), with the possibility of performing for the Fuhrer himself. The guitarist seems half-willing to do it — he claims that he isn’t French and the war doesn’t really concern him — until an old girlfriend, Louise de Clerk (Cecile de France), pops back into the picture and warns him of the risk for gypsies under the Third Reich, where they suffered a fate similar to that of the Jewish population. A plan is then hatched that will allow Reinhardt, his wife (Beata Palya) and his overbearing mother (Bimbam Merstein) to escape over the Swiss border.

From then on, Django shifts too far into genre territory, cooking up a caper plot that feels closer to Inglourious Basterds than to the historical record, and bringing in a stock cast of evil Nazis, a beautiful double-agent and a bravura Hitchcockian set-piece where Reinhardt’s music and the perils of WWII come colliding together. It’s fairly entertaining stuff but also too overcooked to be true, even if Comar continues to home in on the film’s major themes — especially when Django reconnects with his Roma brethren in a nearby encampment that will ultimately become a target as well.

Despite all the narrative embellishments, the movie does maintain a sense of Reinhardt’s persona along with his incredible musical abilities, especially in a trio of concert scenes that highlight each act. While offstage Django is shown to be a rather taciturn husband and son, with Kateb thankfully avoiding the usual tortured artist antics, as soon as he picks up a guitar he comes into his own. At those moments, the actor reveals Reinhardt’s pleasure in rocking out with his fellow musicians — whether in a packed hall or an empty bar — to the fast-paced and feverish gypsy jazz (or “jazz manouche” as it’s called in France) compositions that made him famous, and one longs for a film that would offer up more performance and less fiction.

Technical credits are strong in a classical sense, with cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne (The Brand New Testament) giving the film an old-fashioned sheen and production designer Olivier Radot (After Love) keeping the wartime decors simple and spare. Sound work by Cyril Moisson, Vincent Guillon and Stephane Thiebault convincingly mixes all the prerecorded songs into settings both indoors and out, allowing every note of Reinhardt’s incredible music to take center stage.

Production company: Fidelite Films
Cast: Reda Kateb, Cecile de France, Beata Palya, Bimbam Merstein, Gabriel Mirete, Vincent Frade, Johnny Montreuil
Director: Etienne Comar
Screenwriters: Etienne Comar, Alexis Slako, freely adapted from the book
Folles de Django by Alexis Salatko
Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Director of photography: Christophe Beaucarne
Production designer: Olivier Radot
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Monica Coleman
Composer: Django Reinhardt, performed by the Rosenberg Trio, Warren Ellis
Casting director: Stephane Batut
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Pathe

In French, Romani

115 minutes

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