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While the #oscarssowhite controversy has helped shine a light on Hollywood’s ongoing racial gap, how do black and minority actors fare in other parts of the world?
That’s a question that could have been answered by Dieumerci! (Thankgod!), a semi-autobiographical crowdpleaser from Martiniquais director-star Lucien Jean-Baptiste that charts one man’s climb from struggling ex-con to budding Parisian thespian. Unfortunately, the more intriguing issues at hand – especially in a country like France, where minorities are less prevalent in the entertainment industry than they are in the U.S. – are brushed aside by a feel-good storyline that never really digs deep enough, resulting in yet another middling Gallic dramedy.
Jean-Baptiste was a leading voice actor who dubbed the likes of Chris Rock, Will Smith and Don Cheadle, before breaking onto the scene in the crime thriller 13m2 and making his directorial debut in 2009 with First Snow (La Premiere etoile), an all-black ski comedy that raked in a hefty 1.7 million admissions at the box office. He followed it up with the less successful 30° Couleur, whose low theatrical take should be outdone by the easily accessible Dieumerci!, which is being released locally by Wild Bunch and could garner interest in Francophone lands.
Using an extremely classic against-all-odds template, the script (by Jean-Baptiste, Gregory Boutboul and Veronique Armenakian) follows the travails of 44-year-old former convict Dieumerci (Jean-Baptiste) as he tries to reboot his life after spending time in prison for unknown reasons. Rather than banking on steady employment, Dieumerci – whose name is the brunt of a few easy jokes – does all he can to fulfill his lifelong wish of becoming an actor, enrolling in Paris’ prestigious Cours Venturi (based on the actual Cours Florent), where he hopes to learn the tricks of the trade and then to one day make it big.
“Everyone has a childhood dream,” is the film’s boilerplate tagline, and the plot never strays very far from that formula, showing our hero scraping by with a series of grueling construction jobs while living in a fleabag hotel run by happy-go-lucky Indian immigrants. Eventually, Dieumerci teams up with Clement (Baptiste Lecaplain), a shiftless rich white kid with major daddy issues who becomes our hero’s acting partner as the two rehearse a scene from Romeo and Juliet for the big finale.
More focused on class issues than on racial ones, Jean-Baptiste concentrates primarily on his alter ego’s underdog status and inability to afford Venturi’s pricey tuition, even if he gets some help from the school’s airhead secretary (Delphine Theodore). The fact that Dieumerci is of Antillean origin never really factors into the narrative, underlying how France can, in some ways, be more colorblind than the U.S., though it hardly explains the paucity of minority actors in the worlds of French cinema and theater.
Ultimately, a film about the options available to Dieumerci once he graduates acting school – call it Dieumerci Deux – may have been more interesting than this one, as there are still few major roles available for black performers in Gaul, while those that do exist have probably been taken by megastar Omar Sy (Intouchables, Chocolat). Instead, Jean-Baptiste tends to stick with the obvious here, dishing out lots of broad jokes and letting the unlikely bromance between Dieumerci and Clement swallow up most of the running time, leading to a conclusion that’s foreseeable from scene one.
Tech credits are serviceable, while the score by Fred Pellem is a gift that gives too much.
Production companies: Vertigo Productions, TF1 Films Production, Wild Bunch
Cast: Lucien Jean-Baptiste, Baptiste Lecaplain, Delphine Theodore, Olivier Sitruk
Director: Lucien Jean-Baptiste
Screenwriters: Gregory Boutboul, Lucien Jean-Baptiste, Veronique Armenakian, based on the original idea “Interim” by Gregory Boutboul
Producers: Aissa Djabri, Farid Lahouassa
Executive producer: Denis Penot
Director of photography: Colin Wandersman
Production designer: Pierre Pell
Costume designer: Laurence Benoit
Editor: Sahra Mekki
Composer: Fred Pallem
Casting director: Anne Barbier
Sales: Other Angle Pictures
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