CANNES -- The hero of "Heroes" is a frustrated comedian who one day decides to kidnap a rock star and hold him for ransom. If this reminds you of Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese's "The King of Comedy," that's precisely what's intended. Bruno Merle's debut feature abounds in cinematic references. The soundtrack is credited in part to a certain Rupert Pupkin, the name of the De Niro character. And Pierre, the protagonist, demands during one of his frequent harangues: "Who are you? Scorsese?"

Pierre (Michael Youn) is first seen at work as the warm-up man for a television game show. We then find him holed up in a vast, ramshackle apartment, his victim trussed up with adhesive tape, watching a report of the kidnapping on the evening news.

It's hard to say precisely how the story develops after this, or even whether there's a story at all. The movie functions as the kind of Rubik's Cube enigma familiar to David Lynch fans and could acquire a cult following like that of the American director, though it may be too off-the-wall for mainstream audiences. The film opens June 20 in France.

We're not told how Pierre has managed to abduct his prey, an aging rocker called Clovis Costa (Patrick Chesnais). Doubts start to arise when the prisoner insists that he is not a showbiz performer called Clovis after all but a just regular guy named Lucien. These doubts are reinforced when an armed man breaks in and throws Pierre out of the window to the street far below. Moments later he is back threatening his victim or ruminating about a former sweetheart, Lisa (Elodie Bouchez), with whom he would have liked to have played in one of the classics of French theater, "Cyrano de Bergerac."

Later still, we find Pierre lying on a bed next to a dead body, which we gather is that of his father (Raphael Benayoun) but which suddenly comes alive. He wanders out into the corridor, and suddenly we are in the world of the Coen brothers' "Barton Fink." He enters a room and finds himself in a scene from his adolescence, and then at an orgy. Clovis/Lucien breaks free. Another man, Maurice (Jackie Berroyer), breaks in brandishing a plastic gun.

No description of this movie could make it sound like anything other than a mess; in principle, it ought not to work, but somehow it does. This is largely because of the bravura performance of Youn, who positively sizzles on the screen, playing Pierre like Samuel Beckett on speed. Giddy monologues alternate with two-handers with Chesnais and moments of poetry with manic (nonlethal and mostly verbal) violence. Merle sets up a hermetic, nightmare world of laughter in the dark, heightened by the astute use of music, in particular -- as Pierre puts on his face paint -- the old Judy Garland/Gene Kelly number "Be a Clown." The effect is at times grueling, often mesmerizing, and ultimately exhilarating.

Spectators may be best advised not to seek any particular meaning in "Heroes," the title as much as the movie, unless it is to say that a comedian's life is no laughing matter. But Merle creates the kind of resonance that leaves one feeling that a second viewing would be well worthwhile.

Les Films du Requin
Director: Bruno Merle
Writers: Emmanuelle Destrernau, Bruno Merle, Michael Youn
Producers: Cyriac Auriol, Valentine Beraud, Jean des Forets
Director of photography: Georges Diane
Music: Clement Terry, Rupert Pupkin
Editor: Elise Fievet
Pierre Foret: Michael Youn
Clovis Costa: Patrick Chesnais
Father: Raphael Benayoun
Maurice: Jackie Berroyer
Lisa: Elodie Bouchez

Running time -- 115 minutes
No MPAA rating
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