'Delete History' ('Effacer l'historique'): Film Review | Berlin 2020

EFFACER - Still 1 - Berlin International Film Festival - H 2020
Courtesy of Les Films du Worso / No Money Productions
Binge-watch worthy.

French writer-directors Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern's latest is a hilarious analysis of the terrible world we live in.

Delete History (Effacer l'historique), the latest work from scrappy French iconoclasts Benoit Delepine and Gustave Kervern (I Feel GoodNear Death Experience), is at once a dramedy that dips into yellow-vest sentiment in suburban France; a farce about the digital world that surrounds us and seems to command us more than actually help us; and an all-round, utterly depressing movie about the world we live in today.

A slot in the Berlinale competition might offer this unusual filmmaking duo their highest level of international exposure yet, even if their wacky sense of humor and jerry-rigged-looking visuals will never be the material of a major mainstream hit. Festival audiences and art house patrons-in-the-know, however, will love it. Delete History is set to be released in France on April 22.

The film looks at three down-and-out protagonists in an anonymous slice of working-class suburbia that could be practically anywhere in France (it was shot in Saint-Laurent-Blangy, 100 miles north of Paris, near Arras). Marie (Blanche Gardin) is worried that her 15-year-old son (Lucas Mondher) might find out about her sex tape and wants it erased from the internet, which is easier said than done. (She's also not entirely sure how she ended up in a sex tape in the first place.)

She’s friendly with one of the neighbors, Bertrand (Denis Podalydes), whose 13-year-old (Clementine Peyricot) is the victim of cyber-bullying, for which he needs to find a solution, so he starts writing letters to Facebook. And then there’s “Faridah,” aka Christine (Corinne Masiero), a freelance driver for a (fictional) VIP version of an Uber-like company who keeps getting one-star ratings from her clients whatever she does. She’s also obsessed with binge-watching series, an activity that’s like opium for the sharing-economy masses, allowing the exploited workers to vegetate at home when they’re not working while being mildly entertained for a near-reasonable price. All of them are part of the lower social strata for whom life became more and more complicated because the 1 percent keeps getting richer only by pushing everyone else further and further down.

As in a lot of their films, the writer-directors string together a series of small, sketch-like scenes that are often more connected on a thematic level than a narrative one. Some of the absurd or near-absurd situations are guaranteed to make audiences laugh, whether they make fun of boomers’ cluelessness about the web — “What are YouPorn’s opening hours?” — or the absurdity of the shrinking brick-and-mortar economy, in which your nearest mail office might close and your mail will be rerouted to an office 30 miles away, even though there’s an open office in the next village down the road.

Marie's solution to protecting and yet remembering all her passwords is an ingenious one — even if it limits the number of things you can comfortably put in your freezer — while people also get stuck on expensive helplines that don’t help them at all but are designed to make money off of their clients’ dissatisfaction with a product that should be working in the first place but isn’t. The citation of a famous shot from Titanic in a completely different context has to be seen to be believed. 

Delepine and Kervern are counting this as their 10th work (one of them was technically a short), and to celebrate there are cameos from familiar faces from their universe. Vincent Lacoste (Saint-Amour) pops up as the insupportable Breton man who slept with Marie in their sex tape; Benoit Poelvoorde plays a deliveryman of “Alimazone,” who freaks out when he gets coffee on his delivery slip because he’s not allowed to drink anything on his rounds; and Michel Houellebecq stars as a variation on the desperate man he played in Near Death Experience. Philippe Rebbot has fun as a man who has started gaming the system instead of letting it game him, while the most surprising cameo comes from Bouli Lanners, whose character is referred to as “God” in the end titles.   

Masiero, Podalydes and Gardin are all experienced comedians and actors but new to Delepine and Kervern’s immediately identifiable brand of socially conscious craziness. They fit perfectly into the directors’ unique worldview, which can be hilarious and melancholic at the same time. By the time Marie has found her way to the headquarters of a famous — but unnamed for legal reasons, the irony! — Silicon Valley tech giant where she rages, “I want my pussy back, it’s my right!,” the moment is both laugh-out-loud funny and intensely tragic.

Clearly, Marie will never have full control over something as personal as a sex tape, and she’s thrown off the premises for trying to protect her own privacy and the lives and innocence of her children. After the laughter dies down, the bitterness of Delepine and Kervern's analysis on the sad-sack-sorry state of the world we live in remains.

Production companies: Les Films du Worso, No Money Productions, France 3 Cinema, Scope Pictures, Pictanovo
Cast: Blanche Gardin, Denis Podalydes, Corinne Masiero, Vincent Lacoste, Benoit Poelvoorde, Bouli Lanners, Vincent Dedienne, Philippe Rebbot, Michel Houellebecq, Clementine Peyricot, Lucas Mondher
Writer-directors: Benoit Delepine, Gustave Kervern
Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoit Quainon, Benoit Delepine, Gustave Kervern
Cinematographer: Hugues Poulain
Production designer: Madphil
Costume designer: Agnes Noden
Editor: Stephane Elmadjian
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)

Sales: Wild Bunch

In French
110 minutes