'The Dune' ('La Dune'): Film Review

Les Films du Poisson
A minimalist transcontinental mystery whose strong visuals can't compensate for a sketchy plot and laconic direction.

Niels Arestrup ("A Prophet") and Lior Ashkenazi ("Footnote") play two strangers with a deeply hidden connection in writer-director Yossi Aviram's debut feature.

If, as Alfred Hitchcock once remarked, films can be like "slices of cake," then the meandering mystery movie The Dune (La Dune) could definitely use some extra chocolate, sprinkles, Reddi-wip, a scoop of vanilla ice cream — anything to give this rather bland Franco-Israeli co-production some more flavor.

Marking the directorial debut of former cinematographer Yossi Aviram (Under the Same Sun), this existential thriller about a man from Israel who turns up in France only to fall under investigation by a retiring detective, takes a decent premise and goes nowhere exciting with it, drawing every scene out to its maximum boredom point. It's too bad, because with a cast of talented actors like Niels Arestrup (A Prophet), Lior Ashkenazi (Footnote) and Guy Marchand (Coup de torchon), as well as some gorgeous background scenery, there was certainly enough to work with. Following screenings in San Sebastien, San Francisco and Haifa (where it won the award for Best Debut Film), The Dune is receiving a limited summer release in Gaul.

A prologue, set in an unnamed Israeli city, introduces us to Hanoch (Ashkenazi), a quiet man who fixes bikes for a living and plays chess as a pastime. When he refuses to have a baby with his girlfriend (Dana Adini), pushing her to get an abortion, he's soon kicked out of the house and then takes off altogether, winding up in Paris for unknown reasons.

Cut to missing persons investigator Reuven (Arestrup), whose encounter with a writer-on-the-run (a cameo-ing Mathieu Amalric) leads to tragic results, throwing the crotchety detective into a funk as he decides to take an early retirement. But when Hanoch suddenly shows up in his neighborhood and is then found unconscious on a beach in the southwest Landes region, Reuven is drawn into one last case, which turns out being much closer to home than he imagines.

Using minimal action to move the narrative forward, Aviram sets up a mystery that's fairly easy to solve, at least for the viewer, which means we're left watching two characters who will gradually reveal themselves as time progresses. Unfortunately, neither Hanoch nor Reuven do or say much of anything at all, the former deciding to go on a dialogue strike until the truth comes out during the 11th hour, and the latter brooding in his car, his bed or in various cafes where he slumps over the counter.

Supporting roles by the sprightly Emma de Caunes (The Science of Sleep), playing a local pregnant woman, and the classy Guy Marchand, playing Reuven's long-term boyfriend, manage to bring some variation to what's otherwise a rather classic case of cinematic ennui. And even if Aviram — who also wrote Sameh Zoabi's Under the Same Sun — ultimately has something to say about the choices we make and the tough consequences they entail, he does it in a way that's too laconic to create genuine emotion.

Despite the sparse storytelling, The Dune benefits from the delicately lit visuals of DP Antoine Heberle (Paradise Now), who creates some strong parallels between the French and Israeli landscapes, or else utilizes windows and doors to reflect the action in clever ways. Atmospheric sound design by Gil Toren (Zaytoun) is also a plus.

Production companies: Les Films du Poisson, Lama Films/United King Films
Cast: Niels Arestrup, Lior Ashkenazi, Guy Marchand, Emma de Caunes
Director, screenwriter: Yossi Aviram
Producers: Yael Fogiel, Laetitia Gonzalez, Ayelet Kait, Amir Harel
Executive producer: Johan Broutin
Director of photography: Antoine Heberle
Production designer: Manu de Chauvigny
Costume designer: Alexia Crisp-Jones
Editors: Anne Weil, Francois Gedigier
Composer: Avi Belleli
Sales agent: Le Pacte

No rating, 86 minutes