'Don't Tell Me the Boy Was Mad' ('Une Histoire de fou'): Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
'Don't Tell Me the Boy Was Mad'
Compelling material that cries out for more punched-up treatment

The ripple effects of the Armenian genocide on subsequent generations are felt in Robert Guediguian's drama set during the wave of militant attacks in Europe in the 1980s.

Cannes regular Robert Guediguian, the social-realist chronicler of working-class Marseille, reconnects with his paternal roots in Don't Tell Me the Boy Was Mad, an impassioned but long-winded consideration of the Armenian genocide's lasting impact on the displaced generations that followed. The film benefits from detailed historical background and an engrossing establishing section that seeds a sense of bitter injustice passed on from survivors to their descendants. But contrived plotting, unidimensional characters and lack of economy weigh down the drama.

At two-and-a-quarter hours, this story of radicalization and responsibility would be greatly improved by the loss of 20 minutes or more, fueling some much-needed tension in the protracted buildup to its climactic face-to-face encounter. Tighter pacing might also add urgency to its reflections on the legitimacy of violence.

The clunky English-language title comes from the lyrics of a 1980 hit by French pop songstress France Gall. But the source material is an autobiographical novel by Spanish journalist Jose Antonio Gurriaran, who was semi-paralyzed in a bomb blast planned by militants from the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) in Madrid in 1981. During his recovery, he researched the Ottoman Empire's extermination and removal of Armenians from their homeland during World War I, a crime against humanity still officially denied by Turkey. As a result, Gurriaran became an activist for international recognition of the Armenian genocide.

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However, it's in the fictional embellishments stitched around the author's stand-in that Guediguian and co-writer Gilles Taurand's screenplay is weakest.

The film opens with a black-and-white prologue set in Berlin in 1921, reconstructing the trial of Armenian national Soghomon Tehlirian (Robinson Stevenin) for the assassination of Talaat Pasha, the former Turkish minister who had ordered the evacuation of Armenia. After listening to Tehlirian's disturbing account of the massacre and of seeing his family slaughtered, the jury went against the judge's advice and found him not guilty, despite his unrepentant admission that he shot the victim at point-blank range.

The film switches to color as the action moves to Marseilles at the end of the 1970s. Armenian refugee Arsinee (Siro Fazilian) sings a plaintive folk song of horror and vengeance to her granddaughter (Rania Mellouli). The old woman's son-in-law, Hovannes (Simon Abkarian), whose grocery store they live above, is against filling his daughter's head with such unsettling history, while the feelings of his wife Anouch (Ariane Ascaride) are more mixed.

But their college-age son, Aram (Syrus Shahidi), shares his grandmother's undimmed outrage over past war crimes and criticizes his father for being too complacent. Aram's indignation grows when police shut down an Armenian church memorial service, responding to pressure from Turkish authorities. He becomes part of a radical movement, and in a 1981 hit on the Turkish ambassador in Paris, he detonates an explosion that catches passing cyclist Gilles (Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet) in the blast, leaving him with minimal use of his legs.

Aram takes off for Beirut to join an ASALA unit led by uncompromising hardliner Vrej (Rodney Haddad), whose name is the Armenian word for revenge. While relationships between the militants are discouraged, Aram and tough young Anahit (Razane Jammal) strike up a secret romance, which seems more like a standard movie requirement than an integral plot component. Aram's regrets about the injured Gilles are just the first sign of his qualms about a violent movement that views innocent casualties as inevitable collateral damage.

Meanwhile, back in France, Anouch learns of Aram's involvement in the Paris bombing and her conscience steers her to visit the embittered Gilles in hospital. She expresses her shame over the actions of her people; when he rebuffs her sentiments, she blurts out that she believes her son was responsible for Gilles' injuries. This prompts Gilles to follow her to Marseille, where he becomes improbably absorbed into the family while negotiating a meeting with Aram.

Gurriaran did in fact meet with the people responsible for his injuries, which contributed to his embrace of the Armenian cause. But though the inspiration might be real, the treatment here stretches credibility. It yields plodding domestic drama that saps attention away from the more compelling story of Aram as violent ASALA attacks in Europe escalate, and discordant views cause splintering among the group.

A dull performance from Leprince-Ringuet doesn't help matters; nor does the one-note characterization of Guediguian regular Ascaride. Relative newcomers Shahidi and Jammal are more interesting, their brooding presences adding spark to their scenes.

However, it's frustrating that precisely when the action should be accelerating, the director keeps slowing things down, with stolid, talky scenes, extraneous information and unnecessary distractions like the arrival of Gilles' concerned fiancee (Lola Naymark) in Marseille. And any assistance that music might have provided to create suspense is missing in Alexandre Desplat's routine score. It's admirable that the writers take pains to show multiple perspectives on the issues. But considering the gravity of the situations being portrayed, and the momentous weight of history behind them, the drama too seldom packs any real intensity, ultimately feeling overstretched and underpowered.

Cast: Simon Abkarian, Ariane Ascaride, Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, Syrus Shahidi, Razane Jammal, Robinson Stevenin, Siro Fazilian, Amir El Kacem, Rania Mellouli, Hrayr Kalemkerian, Rodney Haddad, Lola Naymark, Serge Avedikian
Production companies: Agat Films, CIE Production, in association with France 3 Cinema, Alvy Production, Orjouane Production
Director: Robert Guediguian
Screenwriters: Robert Guediguian, Gilles Taurand, based on the autobiographical novel ‘La Bomba,’ by Jose Antonio Gurriaran
Producers: Robert Guediguian, Marc Bordure
Director of photography: Pierre Milon
Production designer: Michel Vandestien
Costume designer: Juliette Chanaud
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editor: Bernard Sasia
Sales: MK2

No rating, 134 minutes.

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