'A Decent Man' ('Je ne suis pas un salaud'): Film Review

A DECENT MAN Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of BAC Films
An arresting chronicle of one man’s gradual unraveling.

Writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel's fourth feature stars Nicolas Duvauchelle ('White Material') and Melanie Thierry ('The Princess of Montpensier').

Not quite simple but definitely serious, A Decent Man (Je ne suis pas un salaud) is a dark and brooding portrait of contemporary malaise, a chronicle of quiet desperation seen through the eyes of a French father unable to cope with modern life, until he temporarily finds relief by accusing an Arab youth of a crime he didn’t commit.

This fourth feature from writer-director Emmanuel Finkiel after his promising 1999 debut, Voyages, stars Nicolas Duvauchelle (Polisse) as the maladjusted, increasingly volatile Eddie, and Melanie Thierry (Zero Theorem) as a mother and girlfriend trying to maintain order in a chaotic household. The two young actors deliver intensely driven performances in a film that takes some surprising turns in both structure and form, though, like its main character, winds up sliding off the rails a bit during the final reel. After premiering internationally in Dubai, Man is receiving a small theatrical release in France, with possibilities for niche art house play in a handful of offshore territories.

First seen looming over the countertop of a bar, 30-something Eddie spends more time drinking and moping about than he does looking for gainful employment. Besides enjoying a few afternoons with his son, Noam (Johann Soule) – from whose mother, Karine (Thierry), he’s been separated for a certain time — Eddie tries his hand at a sales career, but has neither the charisma nor the people skills to go very far.

After another drunken night on the town, he winds up hospitalized when a band of thugs stab him outside one of France’s notoriously gloomy housing projects. (Karine lives in a housing project as well, but tries to spruce up her place as much as possible.) For unexplained reasons — it could be an honest mistake or a deliberate tactic — Eddie fingers local Arab boy Ahmed (Driss Ramdi) as the principal culprit, possibly because he saw him in a sales training video earlier on.

Soon the innocent Ahmed is incarcerated and Eddie is back living with Karine and Noam, working a new job at the very Ikea-like box store (called “Homea” here) where his girlfriend is one of the prize employees of a boss (Nicolas Bridet) who holds her in high esteem (and possibly more than that). It’s a provisional fix that has Eddie quelling his baser instincts to try and make family life work, until the growing realization that he accused the wrong man, as well as the pressures of holding down a job, lead him towards an act of pure madness.

Focusing with razor-sharp precision on Eddie’s inability to adjust to the real world, though never delving into any kind of psychological explanation or backstory, Finkiel presents us with a character who simply can’t accept the raw deal he’s been dealt in life, rejecting everyone and everything through outright bitterness and the steady numbness provided by alcohol. Seen framed in windows, doorways or otherwise gazing out at the cell-like apartments in a housing block across the street, Eddie is portrayed as a prisoner of his own existence whose only escape is to mistakenly throw somebody else in jail.

But such a reprieve is short-lived, especially when Ahmed confronts Eddie before a cautious magistrate, who seems as skeptical at times of Eddie’s accusations as the rest of us. Duvauchelle is at his best in these moments, playing someone so unsure of himself — and so unlikeable in other aspects — that he stands by his lies simply to save face. Finkiel gets much mileage out of his cast without overdoing it, using reaction shots to express deeply unsettling feelings that can hardly be communicated through dialogue.

If the distancing effect can seem overtly stylized at times, the work of cinematographer Alexis Kavyrchine (Vincent) arrestingly captures Eddie’s life amid a backdrop of soul-sucking contemporary structures — whether it’s the concrete tower he calls home or the warehouse of discount furniture where he toils away with no pleasure whatsoever. A sparingly used electronic score by French DJ Chloe also adds to the general feeling of unease.

The film’s violent finale won't come as a surprise to anyone who’s watched the news over the last few years, especially in the U.S. And while some of the characters’ decisions during those closing scenes can feel like a stretch, they don’t really take away from Finkiel’s underlying ambition: to show how Eddie may not necessarily be a decent man, so to speak, but it's the world he lives in that turns him into something much, much worse.

Production company: Thelma Films
Cast: Nicolas Duvauchelle, Melanie Thierry, Driss Ramdi, Nicolas Bridet, Johann Soule, Maryne Cayon
Director, screenwriter: Emmanuel Finkiel
Producers: Christine Gozlan, David Poirot
Director of photography: Alexis Kavyrchine
Production designer: Rozenn Le Gloahec
Costume designer: Agnes Noden
Editor: Sylvie Lager
Composer: Chloe
Casting directors: Juliette Denis, Aurore Broutin
Sales: Bac Films

In French
111 minutes