'Never Ever' ('A jamais'): Film Review | Venice 2016

Courtesy of TIFF

Mathieu Amalric and Julia Roy star in Benoit Jacquot's adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel, premiering Out Of Competition at the Italian festival before heading to Toronto.

Amid a flurry of think-pieces debating the supposed death of cinema, here comes Benoit Jacquot's woeful misfire Never Ever (A jamais) to drive at least one nail into the coffin. A very loose and extremely limp adaptation of Don DeLillo's 2001 novella The Body Artist, it palpably aspires to be a classily highbrow kind of romantic ghost story with psychological thriller undertones, but falls laughably short of its goals.

The cachet of Jacquot and DeLillo's names — plus the prominent billing of ex-marrieds Mathieu Amalric and Jeanne Balibar — should ensure a measure of upmarket Gallic business following its November 23 bow, while many festivals will doubtless bite in the wake of an Out-of-Competition Venice bow and a north American premiere in Toronto. But word of mouth is likely to prove fatal, and prospects further afield for this undercooked metaphysical trifle are strictly DOA.

Ironically enough for a picture which revolves around a haunting, a grim specter hovers over the forgettably-titled Never Ever. In 2014 it was announced that the DeLillo's slimline 128-page follow-up to magnum opus Underworld would be adapted by the flashily imaginative Italian director Luca Guadagnino, with a cast headed by Isabelle Huppert, Denis Lavant and David Cronenberg.

As it is, we now have the relatively little-known French actress Julia Roy — who also takes a solo screenwriting credit — in the central role of Laura, a twenty-something performance artist who impulsively embarks on a torrid affair with successful middle-aged film-director Rey. That the latter is played by Amalric, himself a film-director of some note, and that his bitter former partner and muse Isabelle is played by Amalric's ex Balibar, adds a smidgen of in-joke spice for those aware of such background details.

Laura moves in to Rey's luxuriously elegant sea-front Portuguese pad, and the pair ungulfed in amour fou soon marry. But then the ardor cools and problems arise: Rey's money worries, his not-quite-dormant feelings for Isabelle, or Laura's creative/career frustrations? The general malaise is exacerbated and perhaps somehow physically manifested in the form of bangs and crashes periodically audible in upstairs rooms. After a disarmingly rapid-fire first act, Roy and Jacquot (a prolific director best known internationally for period pictures including 2012's Farewell My Queen) deliver an shocking narrative development via the sudden suicide of a major character just before the half-hour mark. As cinema has reminded us since the earliest days, however, death doesn't need to be the end...

Having zoomed headlong to such a narrative peak so early, the picture then proceeds prettily to tread water for the remaining hour with rapidly diminishing results. The surviving spouse experiences spooky encounters which may be supernatural visitations, grief-provoked hallucinations, or visualizations of the creative process. But despite the best efforts of Bruno Coulais' full-blooded, strings-heavy score, Never Ever reveals itself as a pallid and lifeless affair, more concerned with showing off its characters' impressively tasteful interior decor via Paula Szabo's production-design than exploring their inner lives. 

Amalric and the more fleetingly-seen Balibar do what they can with their thanklessly underwritten parts, although near-newcomer Roy displays sufficient intelligent, alluring screen presence to transcend limitations imposed by her scriptwriting self. Tackling a Don DeLillo novel, even one as brief and as middlingly-received as The Body Artist, was clearly an over-ambitious decision for a writer with no previous such credits. Indeed, there's probably a good reason why Never Ever is only the second time this best-selling, globally-admired author's work has been adapted for the big screen.

The previous example was of course Cosmopolis (2012), which the aforementioned Cronenberg took the unusual step of penning as well as directing. We can only hope that Alex Ross Perry's eagerly-anticipated in-development adaptation of DeLillo's incident-heavy, globe-trotting classic The Names reaches those kind of creative heights, avoiding the pitfalls exemplified by Roy and Jacquot's soul-sappingly inadequate approach.

Production companies: Alfama Films, Leopardo Filmes
Cast: Mathieu Amalric, Julia Roy, Jeanne Balibar, Victoria Guerra
Director: Benoit Jacquot
Screenwriter: Julia Roy, based on
The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
Producer: Paulo Branco
Cinematographer: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Paula Szabo
Costume designer: Valerie Ranchoux
Editor: Julia Gregory
Composer: Bruno Coulais
Sales: Alfama Films, Paris
No Rating, 85 minutes