'Tour de France': Cannes Review

Courtesy of Les Films des Tournelles
An energetic if somewhat formulaic rap-road movie.

Rachid Djaidani ('Hold Back') returns to Cannes with his second feature-length fiction.

We’ve seen Gerard Depardieu do some crazy things over the course of his prolific 50-year career (and let’s leave out all those things he’s managed to do off-camera). We’ve seen him rob (The Fugitives), rape (Les Valseuses), colonize (1492: Conquest of Paradise), wear funny nosepieces (Cyrano de Bergerac, Babylon A.D.), speak English (Green Card), get strip-searched at Rikers Island (Welcome to N.Y.) and transform into a giant mouse (Mon oncle d’Amerique).

But up until now, we’ve never seen him try his hand at gangsta rap — which is one of the more memorable scenes in Tour de France, writer-director Rachid Djaidani’s lively if somewhat heavy-handed indie road movie. Granted, Depardieu’s rhyming only amounts to the lines, “Yo yo/bang bang/suck my dick,” but it’s a weirdly exuberant moment in a film that pits the seasoned Gallic star against a young MC of Arab origins (played with convincing fragility by the rapper Sadek), setting the stage for a culture clash where la vieille France bumps heads with the bling-bling generation.

Premiering in the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight sidebar — where Djaidani’s impressive DIY debut, Hold Back, won the FIPRESCI prize in 2012 — this latest effort sports more polished production values and a tantalizing soundtrack for anyone who adores Gallic hip-hop. (It also features a flash cameo by a major American MC in the third act.) But despite strong performances, kinetic camerawork (by Luc Pages) and some very good intentions, there’s a lot in Tour de France that feels either predictable or too on-the-nose, while the loose storyline never manages to hammer home the film’s themes of exile, regeneration and what it means to be French.

With a baseball cap forever pinned down over his forehead, the 20-year-old Far’Hook (Sadek) is not really as tough as his lyrics and streetwise look make him out to be. He’s actually a smart and sensitive young artist — as capable of nailing a freestyle verse as he is of singing along to the cheesy Serge Lama ballad, “Je suis malade.”

When he’s run out of Paris by a rival rapper named Sphinx (Mabo Kouyate), Far’Hook takes to the road with his producer’s father, Serge (Depardieu), a cantankerous Sunday painter who’s decided to follow in the footsteps of 18th century landscape artist Claude-Joseph Vernet, traveling around to various seaports in the West and South to reproduce the master’s work over two centuries later.

If there ever was an odd couple, it’s definitely Far’Hook and Serge — two stubborn freethinkers who represent opposing views of contemporary France, with the rapping son of immigrants taking on the cheese-eating old racist (and one whose own son converted to Islam). Djaidani gets some decent mileage out of those inert conflicts, though the results are often quite blatant. When Far’Hook is roughed up by cops, Serge steps in and quips that it’s the first time he’s helped out an Arab. Later on, the pair gets into a screaming match, with Far’Hook bellowing: “C’est vous, la France?!”

The director (who grew up in the Paris banlieue and hails from immigrants himself) has never exactly been subtle in his work, and here he dishes out oodles of energy in scenes that often feel improvised, especially those where Depardieu is let loose to do his thing. And while the veteran adds a kind of classic gravitas to key moments, he’s also too much to handle at times. Sadek, on the other hand, gives us something more complex and personal, portraying a boy from the hood trying to make it in the rap game for reasons other than the usual “Money, Cash, Hoes” (to cite the old Jay-Z track).

When he does break into a verse or two, Far’Hook can be as hard as they come, even if the babyfaced Sadek is not exactly as intimidating as Rick Ross. Like its young MC, the best parts of Tour de France are the ones that go beyond such cliches about hip-hop and street life in general, offering up a vision of the French people that cannot be judged by its cover. In that sense, Djaidani manages to drop us a few memorable beats, but his lyrics don’t always stick. 

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Night)
Production companies: Les Films des Tournelles
Cast: Gerard Depardieu, Sadek, Louise Grinberg, Mabo Kouyate, Nicolas Maretheu
Director-screenwriter: Rachid Djaidani
Producer: Anne-Dominique Toussaint
Director of photography: Luc Pages
Production designer: Jimmy Vansteenkiste
Editor: Nelly Quettier
Composer: Clement Dumoulin
Sales agent: Cite Films

In French

Not rated, 95 minutes

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