La Braconne: Film Review

A young thug and seasoned thief team up in this intriguing low-key French noir.

Filmmaker Samuel Rondiere makes his feature debut with this Gallic crime drama starring Patrick Chesnais (“You Will Be My Son”) and newcomer Rachid Youcef.

A compelling mélange of crime story, buddy movie and generational drama, La Braconne follows two petty robbers scraping by on the margins of French society, and the friendship they form in the process. This impressive debut from writer-director Samuel Rondiere is highlighted by strong performances from stars Patrick Chesnais and Rachid Youcef, who form an unlikely, likeable duo between a hardened white criminal and rookie Arab hood. Although the film doesn’t completely convince in its final act, there’s definitely enough here to interest overseas fests and small-scale distributors, making Rondiere a talent to watch.

From an opening tracking shot, which slowly hones in on 60-something Danny (Chesnais) as he stares out the window of his beat-up Mercedes, it’s clear that Rondiere is in solid command of his material, tuning out the usual genre noise to focus on the characters at his story’s core. We next cut to petty thug Driss (Youcef), first seen snatching the cell phone of an innocent bystander, before he meets Danny at a local fence where they both show up to hock their stolen goods.

Soon enough, the aging bandit asks the junior thief to join forces, using him as muscle in a series of low-level robberies, many of them taking place in a series of immense box-store parking lots where much of the fim's action is set. While Danny is smart and patient, though riddled with debts to a dangerous local racketeer (Moise Santamaria), Driss is violent, foul-mouthed and illiterate, engaging in crime because he seems to be incapable of anything else.

As the two take on jobs that are more and more reckless, they gradually transform into a surrogate father-son team, with Danny teaching Driss how to drive and enrolling him in reading classes, while getting a much-needed boost of energy from the young hothead. But any possibility of striking it rich is quickly swept aside when an undercover cop (Jean-Michel Fete) gets on their tail, just as Danny’s money problems push things in an increasingly deadly direction for all involved.

While the set-up seems fairly classic, Rondiere presents things through an objective and realistic point-of-view that never judges these thieves as bad guys, nor reveals them to be entirely redeemable. Rather, they’re more or less condemned to eke out existences on the outskirts of modern life, wandering around strip malls and shopping centers as they prepare their next takedown.

It’s a bleak portrait of smalltime criminality, though not without its flashes of humor and warmth, especially in the many exchanges between Danny and Driss. The former is subtly played by veteran Chesnais (Bright Days Ahead, You Will Be My Son), whose hardened features and suave ways mask an underlying sense of helplessness -- a feeling that his number’s long been up. Newcomer Youcef is equally forceful as a rabid gangsta whose mind is untamed but whose heart seems to be in the right place.

If the pair intrigues for most of the film, things somewhat unravel in a third act that can’t get all its ducks in a row, particularly a subplot that has Driss pimping out an all-too gorgeous prostitute (Audrey Bastien). But Rodiere’s unique vision of thug life remains intact to the end, as does his innate sense of style, with the director and DP Nathalie Durand (Lily Sometimes) capturing many scenes in simple, elegantly framed two-shots that allow the performances to dominate over everything else.

The film’s French-language title roughly translates to “The Poach.”

Production companies: Brandoneon

Cast: Patrick Chesnais, Rachid Youcef, Audrey Bastien, Husky Kihal, Jean-Michel Fete

Director, screenwriter: Samuel Rondiere

Producer: Dominique Crevecoeur

Director of photography: Nathalie Durand

Production designers: Nathalie Rousseau, Astrid Tonnelier

Costume designer: Laurence Forgue-Lockart

Editors: Thomas Glaser, Yann Dedet, Jeanne Oberson

Sales agent: Rezo

No rating, 81 minutes

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