Morning Star (L’Etoile du Jour): Sarajevo Review

The day the clowns cried.

Overcooked French circus drama is sunk by its own pretensions, despite a starry cast and cultish echoes of Fellini and Lynch.

SARAJEVO -- The second feature by actress turned writer-director Sophie Blondy is so achingly French, it might as well be a ripe wedge of brie cheese playing an accordion, smoking an unfiltered Gauloise and wearing a beret at a jaunty angle. Does it feature love triangles, crimes of passion, and vast expanses of po-faced ennui? Oui. Roguishly raddled national treasure Denis Lavant as a crying-on-the-inside clown? Mais oui! Veteran vamp Beatrice Dalle as a fiery gypsy clairvoyant who weeps uncontrollably while stroking an owl? Naturellement! Indeed, the only thing keeping Morning Star from winning the Grand Prix for All-Time Total Frenchness is the lack of a Jerry Lewis cameo. But no matter, will Iggy Pop do instead? Bien sur!

A troubled project which lost its original producer midway through, Morning Star is a visually striking fairy tale featuring an illustrious gallery of Gallic household names. Less impressively, it is also a ponderous, humorless, anachronistic melodrama about a middle-aged troupe of circus performers living among windswept sand dunes on the northern French coast. A weirdly compelling mess, it has a hint of midnight-movie niche appeal based on its cultish cast and vague aura of macabre Lynchian surrealism. But outside tiny connoisseur circles, it will have a very limited commercial life. Screening at Sarajevo Film Festival this week, it makes its North American debut in Montreal next week.

Using a travelling circus as an allegory for life’s tragicomic freak show is a well-worn screen cliché, but that does not deter Blondy. In the footsteps of Todd Browning, Cecil B. DeMille, Fellini, Jodorowsky and many more, she cheerfully peoples Morning Star with broad-brush carnival archetypes direct from Central Casting. Lavant’s anguished clown Elliott becomes embroiled in a lethal struggle with Machiavellian ringmaster Heroy (Tcheky Karyo), who has enlisted buxom witchy vixen Zohra (Dalle) in his dastardly scheme to steal Elliot’s subtly named dancer wife Angele (Natacha Regnier). Meanwhile, Elliott is haunted by guilt over terrible misdeeds in his past, hallucinating a white-clad figure called Conscience (Pop, who remains wordless throughout) in puddles, mirrors and deserted beaches.

Switching between desaturated color and arty monochrome, trippy dream logic and B-movie thriller conventions, Morning Star is simultaneously overcooked and underpowered. At its best, it feels like waking up inside a Tom Waits song. At worst, it feels like being trapped inside a fatally listless undergraduate theatre piece combining improvised dialog and experimental mime. Blondy and her cinematographer Nathalie Durand admittedly share a keen eye for arresting images, providing some compensation for the film’s dramatic flaws. But they clearly did not have sufficient budget for decent visual effects, creating fantasy sequences that have the clunky, cut-and-paste look of a cheap 1980s TV production. Aspiring to be profound, moving and poetic, this carnival of kitsch instead ends up shallow, risible and incurably French.

Production company: Good Lap Production

Producer: Sophie Blondy

Starring: Denis Lavant, Tcheky Karyo, Natacha Regnier, Beatrice Dalle, Iggy Pop

Director: Sophie Blondy

Writers: Sophie Blondy, Philippe Benkemoun

Cinematographer: Nathalie Durand

Editor: Anais Enshaian

Music: Steve Mackay, Jim Peuvrel

Sales company: Wide Management, Paris

Unrated, 100 minutes