'9 Fingers' ('9 Doigts'): Film Review

A weird and wonderfully shot throwback of a thriller.

Punk singer and filmmaker F.J. Ossang ('Dharma Guns') won the best director award at Locarno for his fifth feature, which recently hit French screens.

It takes more than 9 Fingers (9 Doigts) to count the number of bizarre twists and surreal happenings in this latest cyberpunk film noir by French iconoclast F. J. Ossang. Like his earlier works, this stunningly lensed whatchamacallit is rather hard to fathom and features a cast of oddballs speaking in fragments of poetic dialogue, all the while dressed in black and wearing sunglasses indoors.

Ostensibly, the story tracks an innocent man, Magloire (Paul Hamy), who gets caught up in a bad heist and then lands on a freighter ship heading to nowhere — actually towards Nowhereland, as one of the script’s imaginary settings is called. Good luck trying to make heads or tails of it, but as an eye-popping exercise in cinematic strangeness, 9 Fingers is a rare breed. After winning the best director award at the Locarno Film Festival, it’s receiving a small release in France and could garner more cult status on the fest circuit or in limited theatrical engagements.

An opening sequence feels right out of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, with Magloire exiting a train station, crossing paths with a murder victim and suddenly on the run from a bunch of goons led by the pontificating baddie, Kurtz (Damen Bonnard). Soon enough, he’s captured and sent to their hideout, where they’re planning a robbery. When that goes awry, they all wind up on a massive merchant ship headed to an unknown region where even more unexplainable stuff happens.

Toying with the codes of postwar thrillers and sci-fi flicks — the latter most evident when an evil doctor (Gaspard Ulliel) comes on to treat the crew, who are being poisoned by the ship’s cargo of Polonium (maybe this film isn’t so far-fetched after all?) — Ossang revels in an anarchistic brand of storytelling, with characters given long moments to digress over a plot that unravels more than it ties things together.

Rather than following the story, it’s best to just immerse oneself in the rich atmosphere — most of it due to the gorgeous high-contrast imagery of Simon Roca, who shot the movie on black-and-white 35mm film stock. Many scenes have the look of classic noirs by Anthony Mann or Allan Dwan, with half the frame bathed in darkness and a single key light illuminating the actors’ faces. (Ossang’s second feature, Treasure of the Bitch Islands, was filmed by Darius Khondji and helped to put the latter on the map.)

In the lead role, Hamy (The Ornithologist) aptly underplays the archetypical good guy-caught-in-the-wrong place, in a part that could have been filled by John Garfield back in the day. He’s surrounded by a cast of weirdos that includes Pascal Greggory (La Vie en rose) as a stowaway dressed in white, Lisa Hartmann (L’il Quinquin) as a femme fatale named Drella, and the director’s partner, muse and script supervisor Elvire as a bad girl in black who, like everyone else on this long and strange journey, probably won’t make it all the way to the end.

Production companies: 10:15 Productions, OSS/100 Films & Documents, O Som e a Furia
Cast: Paul Hamy, Damien Bonnard, Pascal Greggory, Gaspard Ulliel, Lisa Hartmann, Elvire
Director, screenwriter: F.J. Ossang
Producers: Sebastien Hauguenauer, Bruce Satarenko, Luis Urbano
Director of photography: Simon Roca
Production designer: Rafael Mathe
Costume designer: Karin Charpentier
Editor: Walter Mauriot
Composers: M.K.B. Fraction Provisoire, Jack Belsen
Sales: Capricci

In French
99 minutes