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Our Heroes Died Tonight: Cannes Review

Nos heros Cannes Critics Week Still - H 2013

The Bottom Line

Atmosphere dropkicks storytelling in an otherwise intriguing feature debut.

Venue

Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)

Director-Screenwriter

David Perrault

Cast

Denis Menochet, Jean-Pierre Martins, Constance Dolle, Philippe Nahon

Denis Menochet ("Grand Central") and Jean-Pierre Martins ("La Vie en Rose") play two wrestlers duking it out in early 1960s Paris.

CANNES -- “The virtue of wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess,” French theorist Roland Barthes wrote in his famous collection of cultural critiques, Mythologies. Taking the opposite approach, writer-director David Perrault’s Our Heroes Died Tonight (Nos heros sont morts ce soir) is a minimalist, semi-experimental throwback to early 60s filmmaking, employing stark black-and-white imagery to portray two downbeat wrestlers whose battles are overshadowed by traumas from the Algerian war. As such, this provocative debut should only have limited commercial prospects, though fests and boutique distributors may want to throw themselves into the ring.

An opening montage, mixing fight sequences with archive footage of the 1954-1962 colonial conflict, outlines the film’s setting and major themes from the get-go. Next, we’re introduced to Simon (Jean-Pierre Martins) a bulky and stoical white masked wrestler whose nom de ring is The Specter, and who’s one of the favored fighters of Gauloise-puffing, trash-talking impresario Ferdinand (Philippe Nahon).

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Eking out a living fighting bouts in grimy gin joints and backwater saloons, Simon eventually runs into an old buddy, Victor (Denis Menochet), back from Algeria and looking to make a quick buck. Initiated into the pre-rehearsed, bare-knuckles art of semi-pro wrestling, the bulky and brutish Victor transforms into a black-masked bad guy called The Knacker of Belleville, becoming The Specter’s principal sparring partner as the two real friends/faux foes start cleaning it up on the French circuit.

But Victor’s battlefield traumas and perhaps, his colonialist guilt, push him to secretly switch masks with Simon—a decision that puts them at odds with the mafioso types that run the wrestling racket, leading to a final skirmish that takes place outside the ring and doesn't leave everyone standing.

As captivating as that all sounds, Perrault—whose 2009 short Adieu Creature played the Clermont-Ferrand fest—is less interested in storytelling than in creating a certain kind of bygone atmosphere, using chiaroscuro lensing by Christophe Duchange to pay homage to an array of 50s-60s film noir classics, especially those by French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le flambeur and Les Doulos in particular).

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Likewise, the slang-ridden dialogues are straight out of a script by Gallic screenwriting legend Michel Audiard (Les tontons flingueurs), with the actors employing working-class Parisian accents thick enough to cut with a chainsaw. Even the film’s title refers to another noir classic—Robert Wise’s 1949 movie The Set-Up, whose French translation was Our Heroes Won Tonight.

Yet despite all the period references and technical skill, there’s really not enough material to sustain the film for feature length, and the characters feel too much like retro archetypes to be convincing. (As for the female characters, they pretty much play the same background roles they did in the 60s.) Likewise, the experimental tone of many of the scenes, which tend to favor lighting effects over plot, makes it hard to latch on to the narrative once the movie reaches its one-hour mark.

Still, Perrault manages to coax strong (literally) performances from both Menochet (also starring in Cannes film Grand Central) and Martins (who played boxer Marcel Cerdan in La Vie en rose), with an extended midway brawl between them being the highlight. He also leaves us with a few lasting images, especially one of a masked wrestler standing at a zinc-topped bar, sipping his red wine through a straw.

 

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)

Production companies: Mille et une productions

Cast: Denis Menochet, Jean-Pierre Martins, Constance Dolle, Philippe Nahon

Director, screenwriter: David Perrault

Producer: Fares Ladjimi

Director of photography: Christophe Duchange

Production designer: Florian Sanson

Costume designer: Virginie Alba

Music: Julien Gester, Olivier Gonord

Editor: Maxime Pozzi-Garcia

Sales Agent: SND Groupe M6

No rating, 97 minutes