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A black doctor with plans to become filthy rich arrives in a picturesque, nostalgia-drenched and lily-white hamlet in 1950s France in the obnoxiously misguided dramatic comedy Dr. Knock (Knock). The film is based on the darkly satirical and oft-adapted Jules Romains play about how nascent advertising techniques can fan the flames of an entire village’s hypochondria while enriching a man in a position of respect and power who is supposed to help the community. But in the version of writer-director Lorraine Levy, the conman is not only the town’s only person of color — not at all acknowledged, which is already problematic — but somehow, despite his frequently crass actions, he manages to get the entire village to become very fond of him by the film’s entirely implausible happy end.
Notwithstanding the presence of Intouchables megastar Omar Sy, who has also appeared in Hollywood fare including Jurassic World, Inferno and X Men: Days of Future Past, the pic managed to open locally to only about a third of the number of Sy’s most recent French film, Two Is a Family.
Levy’s previous film, the Middle East-set adoption drama The Other Son, made almost $1.3 million for Cohen Media in 2012, but Dr. Knock is unlikely to score a stateside theatrical release at all and will prove to be a hard sell for the distributors elsewhere in Europe and in Australia who pre-bought the item.
In the film’s Marseilles-set prologue, it’s quickly established that Knock (Sy) is a crook with serious debts that he only barely manages to avoid by taking a job as a doctor aboard a ship that’s leaving immediately. The tall 40-year-old has never studied medicine but is determined to do so after his miraculously positive experiences on board (they are mostly played for awkward laughs that never really land). Levy then skips to five years later, when Knock — in French, the “k” is also pronounced — arrives at the peaceful hamlet of Saint-Maurice to take over the cabinet of the sleepy Dr. Parpalaid (Nicolas Marié), known for often prescribing rest and herbal teas, much to the frustration of the town pharmacist (Michel Vuillermoz).
Knock quickly realizes there’s no money to be made in the village so he uses his conman ways to advertise his arrival and get his consultation room and schedule as full as possible as soon as he can. He then puts the basic ideas of supply and demand into practice, saddling the locals with illnesses and health problems both real and imagined, with possible treatments costing them an arm and a leg. But his Marseilles debts have not been forgotten, so it’s not long before one of his criminal creditors (Levy regular Pascal Elbe) arrives, hiding out in the church of the pastor (Alex Lutz, a popular stand-up comedian showing impressive range) who’s become jealous that his flock has started to trust the doctor’s “science” more than God.
The original 1923 play by Romains — an early Anglophone version of which was performed in 1932 Ireland with set designs by Orson Welles, then just 16 — is a caustic, inky-black send-up of changing (business) mores that was partially inspired by Moliere’s classic The Hypochondriac as well as Murnau’s 1922 vampire film Nosferatu. It has been staged and filmed many times, most famously with Louis Jouvet in the title role in both 1933 and 1951, with the actor imbuing the physician with a wry and darkly sardonic sense of wit.
But besides Knock’s complexion, which is only hinted at once by one character and then never spoken of again, one would be hard-pressed to find anything very dark in this new adaptation. It is set in a 1950s hillside village filtered through the kind of completely artificial, sun-dappled la belle France nostalgia that also pervaded movies like 2004 French Oscar nominee The Chorus. The town is inhabited by broad caricatures — the prim and rich old widow (Helene Vincent); the nymphomaniac wife of the pharmacist (Audrey Dana); the eternally inebriated mailman (Christian Hecq) — that never spring loose from their molds, so it is hard to really care whether the charming new quack in town swindles them out of their money or not. To make matters worse, Levy, who adapted the play herself, has expanded the number of “colorful” supporting roles from the original play, giving each character even less time to develop beyond their bare, two-adjective outlines.
Sy is a jovial presence here like in every project that he’s a part of, but his charisma is rooted in a kind of broad-grinned honesty and transparency that are the very opposite of what a convincing conman needs. The fact Levy ignores his complexion completely also makes no sense whatsoever since it undermines what little realism the story might have had, thus weakening the reality of the dark and upsetting topics Romains wants to explore. What makes matters worse is that several villagers confess they can’t quite put their finger on what makes Knock so different without ever mentioning his race, which becomes almost comical the more the point is repeated. While it is admirable to want to cast colorblind, there are issues that need to be addressed when doing this for a period film and when it means the only black character in the entire film is also the story’s only opportunistic criminal. And to still get her happy ending, Levy is forced to turn Knock’s behavior into something the people approve of, thus turning the film into a completely far-fetched apologia of capitalism that would perhaps make the current GOP proud but that runs entirely contrary to how politics and French society interact.
Levy’s regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Soyer, might lavish his attention on the way the sun hits the water in the chocolate-box-ready village fountain but never manages to light Sy convincingly, with the character’s face often blurring into the dark backgrounds. Other technical contributions profited from what was clearly a comfortable budget, though editor Sylvie Gadmer struggles to keep the film pacing peppy, not aided by the fact that especially the subplots feel like they’re on autopilot and their predictability often grinding any sense of forward momentum to a near-halt.
Production companies: Curiosa Films, Moana Films, Mars Films, Versus Production
Cast: Omar Sy, Alex Lutz, Ana Girardot, Sabine Azema, Pascal Elbe, Audrey Dana, Michel Vuillermoz, Christian Hecq, Helene Vincent, Andrea Ferreol, Rufus, Nicolas Marié
Writer-director: Lorraine Levy; screenplay based on the play Knock by Jules Romains
Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Director of photography: Emmanuel Soyer
Production designer: Françoise Dupertuis
Costume designer: Pierre-Jean Larroque
Editor: Sylvie Gadmer
Music: Cyrille Aufort
Casting: Michael Laguens
Venue: Kinepolis Luxembourg
Sales: TF1 Studio
In French, English
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