'A Bluebird in My Heart': Film Review | SXSW 2018

Courtesy of Ocean Films
A predictable film noir bouyed by its cast and atmosphere.

French crime novelist and screenwriter Jeremie Guez ('Burn Out') makes his directorial debut in this English-language thriller, which had its world premiere as a SXSW Narrative Spotlight selection.

A low-key thriller boosted by taut performances and slick cinematography, A Bluebird in My Heart marks a watchable if rather unoriginal directorial debut for French crime novelist and screenwriter Jeremie Guez, whose credits include collaborating on the biopic Yves Saint Laurent and the recent zombie flick The Night Eats the World.

Based on Dannie M. Martin’s book The Dishwasher (the film’s title is actually taken from a poem by Charles Bukowski), Bluebird follows a stoical Danish ex-con named Danny (Roland Moller), who, for unclear reasons, is serving the remainder of his sentence on partial house arrest at a fleabag hotel somewhere in Francophone Europe. He gets a job washing dishes at a nearby restaurant and soon befriends an unruly teenage girl, Clara (Lola Le Lann), who has a nasty run-in with a local drug dealer (Jonathan Robert) that leaves her severely shook up. Put two and two together, and it’s all-too easy to predict how Danny will be drawn back into a life of crime, defending an innocent victim at his own peril.

Surprises are rare in Guez’s adaptation, which escalates the violence in the last act but fails to credibly set things up. Many of the twists rely on pure coincidence, such as Danny running into the rapist at the restaurant where he works, then beating the kid to death in broad daylight in the middle of a parking lot. This goes entirely unwitnessed, until a homeless man (Steven Struyven) happens to see Danny burning the evidence miles away and somehow figures out where to find him. Also, why does everyone, including Clara, speak fluent English in what looks like a godforsaken part of France or Belgium that could serve as a backdrop for a Dardennes brothers movie?

At best, Guez builds an intriguing, borderline inappropriate relationship between the hardened Danny and the rebellious if vulnerable Clara, whose father is off in jail and whose mother runs the hotel where Danny lives. After Clara is viciously attacked by the dealer, Danny helps to clean her up, prompting a shower scene that has her stripping fully down in front of the convicted criminal. Yet the action never comes across as creepy or overtly sexual. Another sequence has the two bonding as Clara waits for the results of an HIV test, and despite the utter grimness of the situation it may actually be the film's most upbeat moment.

Such instances mainly work because of Moller (Land of Mine), who gives Danny the appropriate mix of brutality and sensitivity, playing a guy who's hard on the outside and perhaps too soft in the middle. We never learn much about the jailbird — what crime he committed, how he wound up abroad, why he never bothers to learn a word of French — yet Moller convincingly plays him like a wounded oversized animal trying to lay low for a while, until faulty plot mechanics force him to do otherwise.

Le Lann (One Wild Moment) is also good as the testy young Clara, while Veerle Baetens (The Broken Circle Breakdown) and Lubna Azabal (Incendies) — the latter managing a roadside Chinese buffet and dressed in a silk oriental gown — adequately portray two women who get a tad too close to Danny and wind up suffering the consequences.

Picked up by AMC’s streaming service Shudder following its SXSW premiere, Bluebird is ultimately too run-of-the-mill for wide release and should feel right at home on the small screen. Still, cinematographer Dimitri Karakatsanis does an excellent job adding scope and atmosphere to a story that’s basically sandwiched between a few characters and two locations.

Venue: SXSW (Narrative Spotlight)
Production companies: Cheyenne, Atchafalaya Films, Labyrinthe Films
Cast: Roland Moller, Veerle Baetens, Lola Le Lann, Lubna Azabal
Director, screenwriter: Jeremie Guez, based on the novel ‘The Dishwasher’ by Dannie M. Martin
Producers: Julie Madon, Aimee Buidine, Julien Leclercq, Jeremie Guez
Director of photography: Dimitri Karakatsanis
Production designer: Geert Paredis
Costume designer: Tine Verbeurgt
Editor: Dieter Deipendaele
Composer: Severin Favriau
Casting director: Kadija Leclere
Sales: Alma Cinema

In English, French
89 minutes