'Le Cancre': Cannes Review
Paul Vecchiali's latest film stars Pascal Cervo and the director and features supporting turns from French stars Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric.
An octogenarian’s long-lost childhood love is kept rigorously off-screen until the final reel in the nearly two-hour-long French yakfest Le Cancre, from prolific underground director Paul Vecchiali. The sweetheart in question is played by none other than Catherine Deneuve and her appearance — in a single five-minute scene, shot in a single take — is by far the best thing in the entire movie. The sequence is so intense and charged with unspoken yet clearly felt emotions that it manages to elevate all the rather pedestrian talk about love, relationships and parenthood that preceded it by retroactively assigning it the role of unhurried foreplay before the quick but spectacular main event. If this is enough to give the film some theatrical traction beyond Francophone territories remains to be seen, though the fact that this is the first of the 86-year-old filmmakers 50+ features to be presented in Cannes definitely can’t hurt.
Vecchiali started as a critic and his most famous work is probably his exhaustive encyclopedic work on French cinema from the 1930s (the writer-director’s first decade on earth), which still inspires him today, as the allusions to Julien Duvivier’s 1937 masterpiece Un Carnet de bal make clear. The Corsica-born filmmaker not only directed Le Cancre but also plays one of the two male leads, Rodolphe, a womanizer who even into his eighties still pines for the one got away, Marguerite (Deneuve).
In early 2007, Rodolphe’s adult son, the somnambulist Laurent (Pascal Cervo, a regular collaborator), isn’t on board with the idea that his father still lives alone and decides to move back in again. Time hopping ever closer to the present for no apparent purpose, father and son deal with their amorous travails and revelations, with French icon Edith Scobb (Holy Motors) at one point making a fun cameo as a harried nun worried about Rodolphe’s well-being. Ex-wives, children and lovers come and go and at one poin it is also revealed that Laurent might be batting for the other team, which should come as no surprise to those familiar with Vechialli’s output — he was one of the first directors in France to feature actively non-heterosexual characters in his films — but which seems to literally put his father in the hospital.
There’s a cobbled-together kind of quality to the screenplay by Vecchiali and Noel Simsolo, with some good individual moments or scenes — one features a cameo by Bond baddie Mathieu Amalric as another distraught father — scattered throughout but no solid narrative backbone on which to peg all the heterogeneous individual scenes. Vechialli also doesn’t manage to get a good handle on some of the material's recurring themes, which are never explored in much depth or meaningfully connected to each other or the people talking about them. The dialogues can be unnatural but offer insight into the characters’ thinking in a way that’s reminiscent of theater and the film’s theatricality is reinforced by cinematographer Philippe Bottiglione’s let’s-make-sure-the-back-rows-see-everything floodlighting.
Le Cancre’s saving grace is the much-awaited appearance of Deneuve, who completely aces her single scene and who almost redeems the film as Rodolphe’s long-longed-for muse. But up until that point, there are only intermittent pleasures.
Production companies: Shellac Sud, Dialectik
Cast: Paul Vecchiali, Pascal Cervo, Edith Scobb, Mathieu Amalric, Francoise Lebrun, Pierre Senelas, Marie-Christine Hervy, Catherine Estrade, Alberta Commaret, Simone Tassimot
Director: Paul Vecchiali
Screenplay: Paul Vecchiali, Noel Simsolo
Producers: Thomas Ordonneau, Paul Vecchiali
Director of photography: Philippe Bottiglione
Editors: Vincent Commaret, Paul Vecchiali
Music: Roland Vincent
Sales: The Open Reel
No rating, 115 minutes