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Submarine movies are not usually a dime a dozen, probably because they cost more than a dime to make. But the past few years have seen a handful of submersible flicks hitting screens both big and small, including the flag-waving Gerard Butler starrer Hunter Killer and Thomas Vinterberg’s Kursk (both out in 2018), the submarine-as-pirate ship saga Black Sea, and the Shawn Ryan series Last Resort, which was a sort of Mutiny on the Bounty centered on a sub carrying ballistic warheads.
The French now enter the game with The Wolf’s Call (Le Chant du loup), tackling the genre from the highly specific angle of an oreille d’or — which means “golden ear” and refers to the job of a submarine sonar technician. If that doesn’t necessarily, um, sound exciting, writer-director Antonin Baudry turns the function into an altogether gripping experience for his debut feature, placing a young man with exceptional hearing powers at the heart of an apocalyptic scenario that only he can resolve.
It’s a little over-the-top at times, with enough twists, turns and post-Cold War crises to seem unreal. But for his first stab at the helm, Baudry assuredly guides the movie’s whopping (for France) $23 million budget in a style that’s closer to Hollywood than to the Cahiers du cinema, offering up a slick underwater thriller that never lets up from the opening shot. With a cast featuring veterans Omar Sy, Mathieu Kassovitz and Reda Kateb alongside relative newbie Francois Civil, Wolf has already raked in close to a million admissions at home, with Netflix scooping the film up for the U.S. and other territories.
Hitting the ground running, or more like diving, the story starts with a French attack sub poised to rescue a special forces team off the coast of Syria. Its captain, Grandchamp (Kateb), and second-in-command, D’Orsi (Sy), are doing their best to remain undetected by Syrian troops patrolling the beach and an Iranian warship floating just above them.
Their success is entirely dependent on Chanteraide (Civil), the gifted “golden ear” whose job it is to interpret every single noise picked up by sonar, determining its origin and weighing its potential risk. (A submarine cannot really see underwater, which is why it relies on sound to both navigate and analyze various threats.)
Like some kind of sonic encyclopedia, Chanteraide can tell you exactly what make and model of ship is nearby simply by hearing its rudder in action. But when an unknown noise is heard just as the mission gets underway, Chanteraide and the crew are thrown into disarray, making it out alive only thanks to a heroic — and rather implausible — act that involves Grandchamp taking down a helicopter all on his own.
Back at the base in France, Chanteraide is reprimanded for his failure to recognize the sound and grows obsessed with finding its source. In the process he meets Diane (Paula Beer), a sudden love interest who seems to have been tossed into the narrative as an afterthought, if not to move the plot ahead a few more degrees. Meanwhile, Grandchamp has been promoted to captain of L’Effroyable (literally: The Frightening), a stare-of-the-art nuclear sub being sent to sea in order to dissuade a growing conflict between Russia and Finland, which really means Russia and the European Union.
At this point many, many things happen at once, with Chanteraide suddenly propelled into the driver’s seat of what may be a full-scale nuclear war. How this happens is not all that believable, even if Baudry — who studied engineering and worked as a diplomat (the latter was the basis for his hit graphic novel Quai d’Orsay, which he adapted into the script for Bertrand Tavernier’s film The French Minister) — tries to be as credible as he can while ratcheting up the tension every few minutes.
What’s perhaps most convincing about The Wolf’s Call is its focus on French military hierarchy and protocols, and how a guy like Chanteraide fits into the mix. Some of the movie’s strongest scenes are those showing the boy genius testing his skills out as his superiors — including a trash-talking admiral played by Kassovitz — look on in both approbation and disguised contempt, ready to pounce on him as soon as he fails.
Baudry, himself a product of the French meritocracy, seems fascinated by how power lies in the hands of an elite few while those in the ranks must suffer their wrath and its consequences. “We’re in France,” jokes Sy’s character at one point when referring to a broken computer aboard his submarine — a submarine that’s meant to prevent the next world war from occurring. Meanwhile, a simple phone call could stop the whole disaster in a heartbeat, except rules of command have made that impossible.
The plot escalates to an insane level after the one-hour mark, pitting sub against sub and seamen against seamen, with the fate of the planet hanging in the balance. Again, it’s too much to be true, but also well paced and well played enough that you don’t really care, with the cast — especially Kassovitz and Civil (Back to Burgundy), who shows he has the chops of an action star here — making it all fairly riveting to watch.
Working with DP Pierre Cottereau (Conviction) and production designer Benoit Barouh (Cold War), Baudry goes big when he needs to for certain major set pieces, yet mostly keeps things confined to the tight quarters of the main setting. Sound designer Randy Thom (The Revenant), who works at Skywalker, does an excellent job creating the various underwater noises that plague Chanteraide day and night, while a score from tomandandy (47 Meters Down) keeps the stakes high throughout. For such a big French budget, it’s money well spent. And for his first time behind the camera, Baudry manages to successfully steer this massive ship to dock by the last act.
Production companies: Pathe, Tresor Films, Chi-Fou-Mi Productions
Cast: Francois Civil, Mathieu Kassovitz, Omar Sy, Reda Kateb, Paula Beer
Director, screenwriter: Antonin Baudry
Producers: Jerome Seydoux, Alain Attal, Hugo Selignac
Director of photography: Pierre Cottereau
Production designer: Benoit Barouh
Costume designer: Mimi Lempicka
Editors: Nassim Gordji Tehrani, Saar Klein
Casting director: Pierre-Jacques Benichou
Sound designer: Randy Thom
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