'Endangered Species' ('Especes menacees'): Film Review | Venice 2017

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Life ain't no picnic.

This ensemble film from French director Gilles Bourdos ('Renoir') is based on several short stories from U.S. writer Richard Bausch.

Three stories set in Nice, on the French Riviera, in winter weave in and out of each other in Endangered Species (Especes menacees), French director Gilles Bourdos’ ambitious adaptation of material from The Stories of Richard Bausch. The overarching narrative here centers on Josephine, a young bride, and the problems she has with her potentially aggressive groom; the other two main story threads involve Josephine’s new neighbor, his pregnant daughter, her future husband and the latter’s PhD student, whose mother ends up in a mental institution.

This gorgeously shot exploration of power relationships and broken families has several very incisive moments and is well acted. Still, like most ensemble films, the complex structure creates both unexpected, meaningful connections and pacing problems, also shortchanging some characters and subplots. After its premiere in Venice’s Horizons competition, the pic will slide into French theaters Sept. 27.

Bourdos, whose lavish painter biopic Renoir made over $2.2 million for Samuel Goldwyn stateside in 2013, co-wrote the adaptation with his regular collaborator, Michel Spinosa, and the most interesting structural decision they’ve made is to open with two impressively prolonged sequences that introduce the first two stories. First up is the wedding night of spunky blonde Josephine (Alice Isaaz) and her lean, tattooed hubby, Tomas (Vincent Rottiers), who check into the bridal suite of a hotel after a wild ride through the night on the back of Tomas’ pickup, filmed by cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing with a lot of energy and verve. At the hotel, instead of newlywed exhaustion or sex, or an awkward combination of the two, Tomas suggests they play a guessing game instead. With just a few quick brushstrokes, Bourdos and Spinosa manage to reveal the first cracks in their relationship and suggest what kind of unhappy things might lie in their future, much to the chagrin of Josephine’s worried but constantly fighting parents (Gregory Gadebois, Suzanne Clement).

The second sustained sequence consists of a very long and increasingly agitated phone call between the pregnant Melanie (Alice de Lenquesaing) and her father, Vincent (Eric Elmosnino). She’s called him to share some big news but, like a set of inverted Russian dolls, each piece of big news leads to an even bigger revelation. The sequence is impressively written and beautifully observed. The fact Vincent, for example, has some big news of his own to share is gradually lost in the fray and isn’t otherwise explicitly addressed, though hawk-eyed viewers will be able to fill in the blanks as the film progresses.

Once the third story is introduced, which looks at Anthony (Damien Chapelle), the grown but unlucky-in-love son of the mentally unstable Nicole (Brigitte Catillon), editor Yannick Kergoat starts cutting between the different characters and plotlines in a more classical manner, with the various stories overlapping and crashing into each other. In perhaps the weakest of the links between the characters, Anthony turns out to be a student of the father of Melanie’s baby, a university professor (Carlo Brandt). There are, of course, not only literal connections between these stories but also thematic ones, with Bourdos especially interested in exploring what the French call “rapports de force,” or power relations and the balance of power, within family structures. The film investigates to what extent family relations make us believe we have certain obligations or loyalties and to what extent we are allowed to be our own people and make our own decision (and thus our own mistakes). In the case of Josephine, this is further complicated by a serial case of denial about her increasingly dire situation while for some parents the question becomes to what extent they could, need or should have protected their child from themselves.

Melanie and her professor aren’t as present as the other major players and a subplot involving Anthony’s search for love lacks the complexity of the rest of the frequently dense material. But the film’s uneven qualities are partially redeemed by several beautifully played moments, like when Anthony confesses to his mother he’d prefer to be in the psychiatric ward rather than her. Some visual ideas are echoed throughout the movie in ways some of the themes echo through the different stories as well. Josephine’s husband and her father, for example, both occasionally work at great heights, turning the film into a vertical as well as a widescreen spectacle.

The lush cinematography bathes the images most frequently in a deceptively warm-looking orange glow, with the occasionally green-tinted scene used for contrast. The city of Nice in winter also seems to have a somewhat ghostly and unfriendly air, with Bourdos often filming in places of transit rather than the more familiar, tourist-friendly hangouts. The film’s piano-driven score, on the other hand, is among the feature's least distinctive qualities.

Production companies: Les Films du lendemain, Les Films du fleuve, Mars Films
Cast: Alice Isaaz, Vincent Rottiers, Gregory Gadebois, Suzanne Clement, Eric Elmosnino, Alice de Lencquesaing, Carlo Brandt, Agathe Dronne, Damien Chapelle, Brigitte Catillon, Pauline Etienne
Director: Gilles Bourdos
Screenwriters: Michel Spinosa, Gilles Bourdos, based on The Stories of Richard Bausch by Richard Bausch
Producer: Kristina Larsen
Director of photography: Mark Lee Ping Bing
Production designer: Guillaume Deviercy
Costume designer: Virginie Montel
Editor: Yannick Kergoat
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)

Sales: Wild Bunch

In French
105 minutes

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