'I Am a Soldier' ('Je suis un soldat'): Cannes Review

An extraordinary story stuck in an ordinary film

French director Laurent Lariviere's feature-length debut, screened in Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar, tells the story of a woman who finds work as a dog trafficker.

In his feature-length debut, I Am a Soldier (Je suis un soldat), director Laurent Lariviere takes an extraordinary subject, dog trafficking in Europe, and works it into a film of disappointing ordinariness. Unpersuasively blending social drama and thriller, this Un Certain Regard entry about a young woman who falls through France’s famous safety net, plays — pardon the overused critical diss — like Dardennes-lite.

Indeed, little of the Belgian brothers’ (Two Days, One Night) artistry or narrative rigor is on display here, though the unusual milieu, as well as the presence of rising French star Louise Bourgoin (The Nun, The Girl From Monaco), may garner some marginal attention in art house venues outside of France.

Usually quite the glamourpuss, Bourgoin (a sort of Gallic Jennifer Lawrence) here sports short hair, little makeup and Mom jeans as Sandrine, a 30-year-old who returns to her native Roubaix, near the Belgian border. Initially just “home for a visit,” Sandrine moves in with her hardworking mom (a vivid Anne Benoit), sister (Nina Meurisse) and brother-in-law (Nathanael Maini), soon admitting that she has lost her job and apartment. In one of the film’s stronger scenes, we see her interviewing for a position as a swimsuit salesperson, giggling at the inane questions (“What would you take with you to a desert island?” the imperious employer inquires).

Read more Cannes: THR Critics Pick Their 10 Favorite Films (So Far)

Looking to make a quick euro, Sandrine goes to work for her Uncle Henri (Jean-Hugues Anglade of Patrice Chereau’s Persecution and Queen Margot) at his kennel, which she quickly discovers is, in fact, a hub for dog trafficking from countries like Poland and Czech Republic. She starts out hosing down poop-covered crates, but in no time she’s wheeling and dealing — or, in this case, picking out puppies, obtaining forged vaccination papers via a shady, if affable, vet (sweetly played by Laurent Capelluto) and pocketing thick wads of cash. When Sandrine starts having misgivings, Henri turns menacing; “Not a word to the family,” he growls.

One of the nagging fundamental problems of I Am a Soldier is that it never convinces us this reasonable and resourceful-seeming woman would resort to as seedy a gig as smuggling and selling sickly dogs to unsuspecting pet lovers. As a portrait of socioeconomic angst, the film is woefully lacking in urgency; sure, times are tough, but it’s hard to believe there’s not another place in all of France that would hire someone with Bourgoin’s poise and dazzling smile.

As the film unfolds, and several of the heart-meltingly cute canines (all strong contenders for the festival’s coveted Palme Dog prize) die, Sandrine’s sense of outrage swells. Yet the screenplay, written by Lariviere with Francois Decodts, fails to make sense of her reaction. What’s presumably meant to be a moral awakening looks more like flip-flopping, as our protagonist appears appalled one minute and willing the next. And since Sandrine’s relationship with her uncle is sketched only haphazardly, with little nuance or depth, her loyalty to him comes off as rather arbitrary. Anglade, a fine actor, has almost nothing to work with here; Henri is essentially a small-time sociopath, laying on the charm and generosity in front of his sister and then acting snarly and sinister when his niece challenges him.

Bourgoin, meanwhile, projects a natural confidence, which makes her an odd fit to play a lost soul like Sandrine. Still, she’s an appealingly expressive, earthy actress — certainly not just another mopey, fine-boned Parisian beauty — and if you stick with I Am a Soldier, despite some unfortunate third-act swerves (including into rom-com territory), it’s largely thanks to her.

Lariviere and DP David Chizallet conjure a lived-in sense of northern French drabness, but the compositions are on the flat side and there’s little effort to communicate the film’s themes of marginalization and despair in visual terms. A bright spot is Martin Wheeler’s quietly clanging score, which subtly ups the tension, while hit Johnny Hallyday song “Quand revient la nuit,” featuring the lyric that gives the film its title, is used in one key scene to stirring effect. 

Production companies: Mon Voisin Productions
Cast: Louise Bourgoin, Jean-Hugues Anglade, Anne Benoit, Laurent Capelluto
Director: Laurent Lariviere
Writers: Laurent Lariviere, Francois Decodts
Producers: Michel Feller, Dominique Besnehard
Director of photography: David Chizallet
Production designer: Veronique Melery
Music: Martin Wheeler
Editor: Marie-Pierre Frappier
97 minutes