'Cowboys' ('Les Cowboys'): Cannes Review

A promising, beautifully written directorial debut from a celebrated screenwriter

For his directorial debut, French star screenwriter Thomas Bidegain casts Francois Damiens as an amateur country singer father looking for his daughter

The hunt for a teenage French girl who’s gone to the subcontinent to follow her possibly jihadist boyfriend turns her family into modern “searchers” in Cowboys (Les Cowboys), the promising feature debut of celebrated French screenwriter Thomas Bidegain.

Unlike the films he’s co-written for Jacques Audiard (A Prophet, Rust and Bone…), which often rely on Audiard’s stunning capacity to foreground grand emotional sweeps, this is a much more constructed narrative that could only be described as a writer’s film, though one with several pleasant  if shocking is your idea of pleasant, that is  surprises up its sleeve. A plump cameo from John C. Reilly both compensates for some weaknesses in the film’s second half, and adds a potentially marketable face to a Francophone cast headlined by a superb Francois Damiens that will help in France but is practically unknown offshore. Festivals and upscale arthouse distributors will come along for the ride.

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The film starts with a long, wordless opening sequence that shows a small family arrive and then make merry at a fair where French country & western enthusiasts come together to celebrate their love of all things Western. Towards the end of the sequence, Bidegain plunges the viewer directly into the narrative when it’s discovered that Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), the pretty teenage daughter of amateur country singer Alain (Francois Damiens) and Nicole (Agathe Dronne) and the older sister of little “Kid” (Maxim Driesen), has taken advantage of the crowds of line dancers and curious onlookers to disappear.  

The screenplay, by Bidegain and Noe Debre, stays very much in the present, with small bits of backstory fed to the audience on the go, as the father starts a desperate search for his 16-year-old offspring in what turns out to be 1994. Though somewhat artificially subdivided into chapters named after the various characters  Kelly, Alain, etc…  the film can roughly be divided into two halves. The first details the relentlessly committed search of the father, who completely ignores his daughter’s letter in which she asks her family not to look for her (if anything, this sign of life makes him even more adamant to find her). Part two is set eight years later, when the focus shifts to Kid (now played by Finnegan Oldfield), who ends up in Pakistan to look for Aafia, the new name of his now 24-year-old sister. It turns out that she might have moved there with her secret boyfriend and possible jihadist, Ahmed (Mounir Marghoum), with a fake passport and connections in Antwerp and Turkey.

By keeping everything in the present tense throughout, and occasionally only hinting at things that might’ve occurred in the mean time, the film forces audiences to make their own connections to fill in the gaps while maintaining a front row seat for the action. The big advantage is that the film thus maintains a sense of urgency without becoming bogged down by the details of a years-long, often unfruitful search in many locales. What’s interesting about the structure of the film is that it invites comparisons between parts one and two, with several characteristics of the protagonist of part one, the father, transferred to the son, and several traits of the (almost entirely offscreen) sister suggested by the introduction of Shazana (Ellora Torchia), a character Kid meets in terrible circumstances in rural Pakistan, where they both end up in prison. By creating these kinds of subterranean links between characters, Bidegain can tell a sweeping story across several years and with multiple characters in very economical ways.

As the title and the opening suggest, something of the Western genre infuses the entire feature. The hunt for a woman taken by the “enemy” by an older and younger man recalls the basic plot of John Ford’s classic The Searchers, and there are other details that tip their hats to the genre, such as when Kid and a cowboy-like U.S. war profiteer (Reilly) who “trades people for money” smoke a pipe with some locals chiefs, which clearly suggests the calumet ceremony of some Native American tribes. But Bidegain is smart enough to simply play with some of the genre rules and trappings rather than slavishly follow them. Indeed, the film’s main preoccupation seems to be to say something about the complex East/West divide of the world we live in today, with Shazana turning into one of the main conduits for the exploration of this particularly thorny issue.

Damiens is better known for his comic roles in the Francophone world, including in The Belier Family, last year’s biggest local hit in France that Bidegain co-wrote. But he’s slowly building a reputation as a first-rate dramatic actor as well, with roles in films such as in Katell Quillevere’s Suzanne, in which he also played a father with a rebellious daughter, and Axelle Ropert’s The Wolberg Family. He’s again exceptional here, suggesting how the disappearance of his daughter is slowly eating away at his sanity and how giving up is not an option, as then he’d be forced to confront the idea of what this might suggest about him as a paterfamilias. Unfortunately, with Damiens taking a backseat in part two, the intensity of the film comes crashing back to earth, as relative newcomer Oldfield  also in Cannes Critics’ Week title The Wakhan Front  is too inscrutable a performer to carry the film in much the same way, though thankfully Reilly is by his side to provide the necessary energy and some moments of humor. The supporting cast is generally strong.

Except for a late-into-the-proceedings confrontation involving two men and a gun, which is staged in a way that’s both not credible and lacking in tension, Bidegain’s mise-en-scene is strongly suggestive. Arnaud Potier’s widescreen images don’t simply ape iconic Western images but allow the French, Belgian and Pakistani (shot in India) landscapes to be themselves, while Raphael’s musical score helps sustain the drama and tension.  

Production companies: Les Productions du Tresor, Pathe, France 2 Cinema, Les Films du Fleuve, Lunanime

Cast: François Damiens, Finnegan Oldfield, John C. Reilly, Agathe Dronne, Ellora Torchia, Antoine Chappey, Maxim Driesen, Jean-Louis Coulloc’h, Gilles Treton, Djemel Barek

Director: Thomas Bidegain

Screenplay: Thomas Bidegain, Noe Debre

Producer: Alain Attal

Director of photography: Arnaud Potier

Production designer: Francois Emmanuelli

Costume designer: Emmanuelle Youchnovsky

Editor:Geraldine Mangenot

Music: Raphael

Sales: Pathe

No rating, 114 minutes