'Ordinary Victories' (‘Le Combat Ordinaire’): Film Review

Haut et Court
Stick to the book

Nicolas Duvauchelle (‘Polisse’) stars in an adaptation of the French graphic novel

Manu Larcenet’s bestselling, prizewinning series of graphic novels Le Combat Ordinaire (Ordinary Victories) offered up a deep and down-to-earth portrait of a young war photographer dealing with anxiety, depression and socio-political forces back on his homefront in France.

Yet while the comic book successfully channeled the inner rage and loss of its lead character, translating that to the screen is another question, and writer-director Laurent Tuel’s glossy adaptation is what the French like to call a fausse bonne idée” – a “false good idea” where strong content does not necessarily make for a strong movie. Episodic in structure and suffering from narrative inertia, this tale of ordinary combat will seem all-too familiar to anyone who’s watched an art house drama in recent years, which may explain why it seems destined to remain a strictly Francophone affair.

Set between the picturesque Dordogne region and the gritty docks of Saint-Nazaire, the story follows 30-something photojournalist, Marco (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who’s decided to leave the war zone behind to concentrate on his bucolic life at home. But with a retired father (Olivier Perrier) suffering from an onset of Alzheimer’s, as well as his own frequent panic attacks that can only be quelled by constant medication, Marco hardly has it easy and seems to be headed into a slow downward spiral.

Things nonetheless look up when he meets local veterinarian, Emily (Maud Wyler), and begins a relationship whose future will depend on his willingness to commit, especially when the latter starts dropping the b-word. Meanwhile, Marco begins working on a new and very personal photo project, documenting the massive naval construction site where his father labored for forty years, and which may soon be headed for extinction as automated machinery replaces the aging local workforce.

Divided into three chapters – after the first three volumes in Larcenet’s four-part series – the script fails to build enough dramatic momentum in its early sections, leading ever so gradually to a weak and predictable payoff during the last act. And while the storylines involving Emily and Marco’s ailing father have been treated umpteen times, the one rather original plot point – dealing with Marco’s kind, elderly neighbor (Andre Wilms), who turns out to be a criminal from the Algerian War – feels both forced and fortuitous, and not all that original in the end (see Bryan Singer's Apt Pupil).

It’s never easy to convey inner turmoil on screen, and although Tuel – who last directed the flawed cycling comedy, Tour de France – provides lots of brooding atmosphere to accompany Marco’s climb to manhood, the struggle is hardly gripping to watch and leading man Duvauchelle (Polisse) never quite charismatic enough. It’s as if the filmmakers were merely trying to illustrate, via a handsome cast and great locations, something that’s already been well illustrated on paper, turning Le Combat Ordinaire: The Movie into yet another empty comic book adaptation in an already overcrowded market, even if the source material here is far from the exhausting worlds of DC or Marvel.

What remains are a handful of pretty pictures – including the stark black-and-white stills that Marco takes of the shipbuilders – with Tuel and DP Thomas Bataille (Bas-Fonds) using the various photogenic backdrops to the fullest. If only the foreground were as captivating.

Production company: Nord-Ouest Films
Cast: Nicolas Duvauchelle, Maud Wyler, Andre Wilms, Liliane Rovere, Olivier Perrier
Director: Laurent Tuel
Screenwriter: Laurent Tuel, based on the graphic novel created by Manu Larcenet
Producers: Christophe Rossinon, Philip Boeffard
Executive producer: Eve Francois Machuel
Director of photography: Thomas Bataille
Production designers: Anne-Charlotte Vimont, Pascal Chatton
Costume designer: Alexia Crisp Jones
Editor: Stephanie Pelissier
Composer: Cascadeur
Casting director: David Bertrand
International sales: Films Distribution

No rating, 100 minutes

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