‘French Blood’ (‘Un francais’): Film Review

French Blood Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Mars Distribution

French Blood Still - H 2015

A bone-crushing portrait of a French skinhead

Writer-director Diasteme chronicles members of France’s skinhead movement.

There will be French Blood — and lots of it — in the opening sections of writer-director Diasteme’s gritty and intermittently ultraviolent portrait of a Gallic skinhead. But what starts off as a kinetic and, at times, off-putting chronicle in the style of Alan Clarke’s Made In Britain (aka the film that put Tim Roth on the map), turns into something else entirely, in a movie that spans nearly two decades as it follows one young neo-Nazi’s transformation from a brutal street brawler into a tortured loner.

Impressive in its scope and no-nonsense depiction of a rarely seen side of French society, this sophomore effort from the mono-monikered playwright and screenwriter (whose previous film was penned with Christophe Honore) fails to fully convince on the dramatic front, with a narrative that loses steam as its character loses his mojo. But the rugged, lived-in performances make for a watchable tale of several unlovable people, which should translate to modest action at home and abroad, where Blood could spill out as a curiosity item in fests and niche art houses.

Released locally in mid-June, the film stirred up some controversy in France when the director, via his blog, claimed that premieres were called off due to possible threats from far-right sympathizers. While distributor Mars has denied cancelling any screenings, they have allegedly reduced the amount of release prints by half — though it’s hard to say whether that’s a safety measure or a question of box office estimates.

In any event, Blood certainly doesn’t welcome most viewers in with its grisly first reel, which kicks off with skinhead pals Marco (Alban Lenoir), Braguette (Samuel Jouy) and Grand-Guy (Paul Hamy) romping and stomping their way through a pair of harmless teenagers. Next we see them humiliating a trio of older Arab men at a local cafe, until they wind up later on at a punk show that finishes in an absolute bloodbath.

In between, Diasteme focuses on Marco’s iffy home life in a grim suburb outside of Paris, where he lives with an alcoholic father and struggling mother. Such details are perhaps meant to solicit some pity on his behalf, but it’s hard to feel for a guy who, when accosted by a “redskin” (left-wing skinhead) in the street, beats his assailant to a pulp and nearly cuts him in half with a meat cleaver. Perhaps only Nicolas Winding Refn would approve.

From then on, things nonetheless take a curious turn when Marco begins having panic attacks. The first one happens on a city bus where, in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, his racial hatred becomes uncontrollable — like a virus eating him up from the inside. Rather than focusing on the political, Diasteme attempts to show the personal repercussions of far-right radicalism, sticking forever by Marco’s side as he gradually retires his Doc Martens and turns into an upstanding member of society, despite the problems that causes with his uber-Fascist platinum blond wife (Lucie Debay).

Certainly no one has ever attempted this kind of movie before in France, and the story’s sprawling reach, which carries over several elections and key events involving the Front National party, is ambitious — as is Diasteme’s desire to tackle such a taboo subject head on. Yet the constant narrative ellipses and time jumps wind up hampering the drama, while Marco often comes across as inexpressive and hard to ascertain. We never know why he hates Africans and Arabs, nor where the hate really comes from, even if a late clue suggests that his prejudice may be a form of self-denial.

Performances are strong all around, with Lenoir (Goal of the Dead) putting tons of energy into a part that’s ultimately more physical than mental, and Jouy is quite memorable as the only member of the gang who believes in the cause decades later. Tech credits are highlighted by Philippe Guilbert’s roving Steadicam shots, which allow scenes to play out uninterrupted in the manner of Clarke’s best films. Music choices include the rocksteady classic and skinhead favorite, “A Message to You, Rudy.”

Production companies: Fin Aout, Mars Films, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Alban Lenoir, Samuel Jouy, Paul Hamy, Olivier Chenille, Jeanne Roso, Patrick Pineau, Lucie Debay
Director, screenwriter: Diasteme
Producers: Philippe Lioret, Marielle Duigou
Director of photography: Philippe Guilbert
Production designer: Riton Dupire-Clement
Costume designer: Fred Cambier
Editor: Chantal Hymans
Casting director: Michael Laguens
International sales: Indie Sales Company

No rating, 98 minutes