'Heat Wave' ('Coup de chaud'): Film Review

Courtesy of TS Productions
Hot town, summer in the Midi.

Jean-Pierre Darroussin ('Marius') co-stars in this true story of a village killing.

An intriguing if not altogether convincing account of small-town summer murder, Heat Wave (Coup de chaud) reveals what happens to a southern French village when temperatures rise, tempers flare and a deranged local starts stirring up trouble.

Marked by solid performances from a well-grounded cast — especially rising talent Karim Leklou (The Anarchists) — this third feature from writer-director Raphael Jacoulot (The Night Clerk) offers up some low-key psychological thrills but fails to deliver in its final stretch, toeing the line between familiar genre tropes and social miserablism. A well-timed August release should yield moderate numbers at home, while fests and a few niche offshore distributors may want to give this hamlet a visit.

The film kicks off rather traditionally, with a flash-forward showing the mentally disturbed Josef (Lelkou) passing out in the rain from a fatal wound. The story then tracks back to a few weeks beforehand, where an unnamed farming town in the south of France is in the midst of a nasty heat wave, leaving its residents to contend with thirsty crops and livestock, as well as the increasingly unstable behavior of Josef.

What starts off seemingly harmless, with the childlike 30-year-old (who apparently "lacked oxygen at birth") blasting hardcore techno or filching random items around the village, soon becomes alarming when he harasses a teenage nymphet (Manon Valentin) while being accused by a hotheaded rancher (Carole Franck) of stealing the municipal water pump. Even the wise and soporific mayor (played by Provencal star Jean-Pierre Darroussin) can only do so much to prevent Josef, who gets arrested several times but keeps coming back, from going off the deep end.

Inspired by real events, the script — by Jacoulot and co-writer Lise Macheboeuf (Three Worlds) — weaves an interesting parallel between the townspeople's growing anxiety and Josef's unnerving antics, as it soon becomes clear that he’s both a major source of their worries and a perfect scapegoat for them. Yet while Josef is himself a compelling character, the others come across as underwritten clichés — especially a newly arrived handyman (Gregory Gadebois) whose adjustment issues will gravely impact the whole affair.

With his glaring eyes and doughy features, Lelkou provides an extremely disquieting presence, yet the actor also manages to give Josef an emotional side that solicits the viewer’s sympathy. As the man’s mother says at one point, "it’s not really his fault," which is something we come to understand just as the villagers are all up in arms.

At the same time, the plot is underserved by Jacoulot’s tendency to use Josef like Freddy or Jason in a horror flick: he’s always popping up at key scare moments, whether it’s a mother taking her baby out of a car, an old woman hanging her laundry or a bunch of teens doing bad things in an abandoned barn. For a movie that’s more arthouse than grindhouse, such decisions wind up hampering the overall tension.

Otherwise, the filmmakers manage to paint a reasonably convincing portrait of a peaceful little French town turned upside down, with DP Benoit Chamillard (Little Senegal) offering up a heavy visual atmosphere, pushing the daylit scenes to the brink of overexposure. You can literally feel the thermometer popping at certain moments, and as the saying goes: If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the la cuisine.

Production company: TS Productions

Cast: Jean-Pierre Darroussin, Karim Leklou, Gregory Gadebois, Carole Franck, Isabelle Sadoyan

Director: Raphael Jacoulot

Screenwriters: Lisa Macheboeuf, Raphael Jacoulot

Producers: Milena Poylo, Gilles Sacuto

Director of photography: Benoit Chamaillard

Production designer: Valerie Saradjian

Costume designer: Elisabeth Tavernier

Editor: Francois Quiquere

Composer: Andre Dziezuk

Casting director: Brigitte Moidon

International sales: Doc & Film International

No rating, 102 minutes