'Louis-Ferdinand Celine': Film Review

Louis-Ferdinand Celine - H 2016
Courtesy of Emmanuel Crooy
An intriguing if underwhelming tale of literary madness.

Denis Lavant plays the brilliant and disturbed author of 'Journey to the End of the Night.'

Out of all the major 20th century French writers, Louis-Ferdinand Celine was by far the most controversial. On one hand, he revolutionized literature with his 1932 masterpiece, Journey to the End of the Night, and its follow-up, Death on Credit — two sprawling epics whose freeform, slang-heavy prose would influence a generation of writers, including Henry Miller and the Beats in the U.S. On the other hand, Celine’s virulent anti-Semitism and collaboration with the Nazi regime would tarnish his life and legacy, forcing him into several years of postwar exile, during which he lived in Denmark until the French government finally granted him amnesty in 1951.  

Focusing on Celine's encounter abroad with Milton Hindus — a Jewish-American scholar who, after revering his literary idol from afar, quickly did an about-face when he actually spent some time with him — Louis-Ferdinand Celine is not quite the biopic its title suggests, but rather a glimpse into the mind of a great if deeply troubled artist. Written and directed by Emmanuel Bourdieu and featuring Denis Lavant of Holy Motors in the lead role, this is a minor-key portrait that works more for the information it reveals than for the drama it creates. French and Belgium box office should be modest while topical interest could drive sales outside Francophonia.

Bourdieu is the son of famous French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and co-wrote the Arnaud Desplechin films Esther Kahn and My Sex Life ... Or How I Got Into an Argument, so it's easy to see why he would want to tackle this true tale of intellectual perversion and disillusion, which was adapted from Hindus' 1950 memoir Celine: The Crippled Giant. But while the subject matter is fascinating and handled with a certain amount of tact, the writer-director never builds a strong enough story arc, employing narrative devices (including a gun) that don’t exactly pay off later on.  

After an opening montage of archive footage, we see Hindus (Philip Desmeules) arriving in the tiny Danish town of Korsor, where Celine (Lavant) and his wife, Lucette (Geraldine Pailhas), eagerly await their visitor at the bus stop. Within a few minutes, it's clear that the famous novelist is completely off his rocker, though he's charming enough that fanboy Hindus is willing to put up with his shenanigans, which include a fair amount of cursing and a tendency to insult anyone who comes within speaking distance.

While Hindus is there to interview Celine firsthand about his work, the author only wants to discuss his situation back in France, where the government would eventually convict him in absentia in 1950 for his collaborationist acts. (Before the war Celine published several pamphlets containing anti-Semitic diatribes; under the Occupation he continued pamphleteering and penned a series of anti-Semitic public letters that, according to Wikipedia, the Nazis deemed “so extreme as to be counter-productive.”)

The fact that Hindus is a Jew seems to initially play in his favor with the author. After all, what better way to persuade the world that Celine is a righteous man than by having a Jewish intellectual defend his cause internationally? But Hindus is only interested in discussing the writing, which Celine doesn’t have much to say about other than an early tidbit that sums up his approach while remaining highly ambiguous: “What is literature? It’s the opposite of the truth.”

Hindus devotedly notes down everything the master says, until Celine starts ranting more and more about his predicament, even if it becomes increasingly clear that the man is a bona fide bigot who’s hardly apologetic about his wartime activities. Their bickering comes to a head during the film’s best sequence, when the couple and their guest share an evening of music and drink that's upended when Celine turns a moment of Yiddish dancing into outright mockery of the Jewish people.

Lavant is certainly in his element portraying a man who acts more like Holy Motors’ Monsieur Merde than a brilliant writer who would forever change the way the French regard their own language. It’s hard to imagine that Celine really behaved like this, though at the same time, who else could produce the dazzling prose of Night and Credit but such an unruly mad genius?

In any event, Celine/Lavant completely dominates the scene here, which leaves Desmeules little room for manoeuvre as the milquetoast and rather stiff-necked Hindus — a character who could probably use more nuance than Bourdieu gives him, especially in a film whose dramatic impact depends on the conflict between its two leads. Pailhas is fine as Celine’s way-too understanding other half, and Lucette probably deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature for putting up with her husband for so long.  

Tech credits are solid if rather academic. The original French-language title Louis-Ferdinand Celine is followed by the subtitle: Two Clowns for a Catastrophe.

Production companies: JEM Productions, Be-Films, France 3 Cinema
Cast: Denis Lavant, Geraldine Pailhas, Philip Desmeules
Director: Emmanuel Bourdieu
Screenwriters: Emmanuel Bourdieau, Marcia Romano, freely adapted from the book
Celine: The Crippled Giant by Milton Hindus
Producer: Jacques Kirsner
Executive producer: Jose Montes
Director of photography: Marie Spencer
Production designers: Eugenie Collet, Florence Vercheval
Costume designers: Florence Scholtes, Christophe Pidre
Editor: Benoit Quinon
Composer: Gregoire Hetzel
Sales: Other Angle Pictures

In French, English
Not rated, 97 minutes