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PARIS – A quirky family-oriented comedy with darker undertones, Nicolas Bary’s The Scapegoat (Au bonheur des ogres) offers up tons of visual flourishes and upbeat performances, but is way too overwrought to sustain itself for the long haul. Based on author Daniel Pennac’s popular novel, which features a professional whipping boy, his coterie of wacky siblings and the fascistic department store where he works under the constant threat of exploding bombs, the film’s over-the-top tone recalls Tim Burton and the Coen brothers at their most outlandish, though its sinister humor and occasional sexual gibes make it more French than anything else.
Distributed by Pathe during a highly competitive week of 28 releases (including the latest by Jean-Pierre Jeunet— another obvious influence here), the €12 million ($16 million) co-production may have a hard time leaving its mark at the box office, though it should find decent ancillary play in Francophone territories. Overseas screenings mostly will be limited to festivals, beginning with an international bow in Rome.
Adapted by Bary, Jerome Fansten (Asylum Blackout) and Serge Frydman (Guilty) from Pennac’s 1985 book — whose original title, Au bonheur des ogres, is a pun on Emile Zola’s department-store-set saga, Au Bonheur des Dames — the film’s fast-paced opening introduces us to an upscale Parisian mega-boutique where 30-year-old nobody Benjamin Malaussene (Raphael Personnaz) works in the customer service division. His job: to serve as a verbal punching bag for his boss, who constantly lambastes him in front of angry clients, hoping they’ll withdraw their complaints out of pity.
If that sounds like a strange occupation, that’s just the first of many bizarre things that start occurring during the busy holiday shopping season, beginning with a bomb that goes off in a window display and kills another employee. When another bomb explodes the week after, a wisecracking detective (Marius Yelolo, A Screaming Man) is soon on Benjamin’s tail, while the store’s suspiciously nervous CEO (Guillaume de Tonquedec) is doing his best to keep the doors open for business.
Things at home are hardly easier for Benjamin, who takes care of four younger half-brothers and -sisters, their mother all but absent as she trots around with anonymous lovers. The shabby duplex where the family resides is more like a clubhouse than a homestead, and Bary gets some mileage out of the various sibling squabbles, many of them involving little kids saying big words, much to the chagrin of their older bro.
Benjamin eventually finds solace in the arms of a roving investigative journalist, Julia (Berenice Bejo), though their relationship is played less for romance than for laughs, most of which highlight Benjamin’s inability to seal the deal in bed. As if there weren’t enough going on already, Bary also brings in director Emir Kusturica (another purveyor of overstuffed content), who plays a night watchman involved in a series of kidnappings that took place 30 years prior.
With so much happening at the same time, it’s hard to find a single narrative strain to cling to, although Bary — whose directing credits include the big-budget kids’ flick Les Enfants de Timpelbach — keeps things lively and fun, especially in the various sequences taking place in the spectacular shopping center. Composed of eye-popping, realistic decors by Bettina von den Steinen (Julie & Julia), with several scenes shot in the actual Galeries Lafayette in Paris, the set pieces paint a surreal and sinister portrait of the modern-day retail world, and it’s too bad such an idea is ultimately lost in the abundance of subplots and characters.
Personnaz (Marius, The Princess of Montpensier) does a good job channeling Benjamin’s bumbling earnestness, but he also overplays things to the point of caricature, as do many of the other castmembers. Bejo (The Artist, The Past) gives a feisty performance that’s ultimately lost beneath lots of scarves and necklaces.
Tech credits are polished, with Patrick Duroux providing a vibrant color palette to accompany all the shenanigans. Film buffs will recognize that certain exteriors were shot outside La Samaritaine, the now-defunct Paris department store featured in Leos Carax’s The Lovers on the Bridge and Holy Motors.
Production: Chapter 2, Pathe, France 2 Cinema, Bidibul Productions, Nexus Factory, Alvy Developpement
Cast: Raphael Personnaz, Berenice Bejo, Emir Kusturica, Guillaume de Tonquedec, Melanie Bernier
Director: Nicolas Bary
Screenwriters: Jerome Fansten, Nicolas Bary, Serge Frydman, based on the novel by Daniel Pennac
Producers: Dimitri Rassam, Jerome Seydoux
Director of photography: Patrick Duroux
Production designer: Bettina von den Steinen
Costume designers: Agnes Beziers, Isabelle Dickes
Editor: Veronique Lange
Music: Rolfe Kent
Sales: Pathe International
No rating, 96 minutes
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