‘Now or Never’ (‘Maintenant ou jamais’): Film Review

Courtesy of Mars Distribution
A socially bent crime drama with a strong cast and rather weak premise

Leila Bekhti (“A Better Life”) plays a mother turned bank robber in this new French thriller

When a loving mother learns that her family’s dream house may be repossessed by the bank, she finds a whole new way of paying off the mortgage: robbing a bank herself. As crazy as that sounds, that’s the premise of writer-director Serge Frydman’s socially minded thriller Now or Never (Maintenant ou jamais), which stars Leila Bekhti as the mom in question and Nicolas Duvauchelle as the handsome thief she enlists for the heist, and with whom she grows dangerously attached.

Marked by strong performances and a curious combination of crime and child-rearing, the film nonetheless toes the credibility line from beginning to end, making it a hard sell. It’s also awfully close in both plot and subject matter to Cedric Kahn’s 2011 drama A Better Life, which was altogether more convincing (and in which Bekhti played a role that’s quite similar to this one). An early September local release should yield decent if unexceptional returns, while the movie’s attractive cast and Paris-by-night setting could help lure niche distributors abroad.

Everything seems to be going right for part-time piano teacher, Juliette (Bekhti). She’s the mother of two fun-loving and well behaved boys (Leo Lorleac’h, Orian Castano), while her husband, Charlie (Arthur Dupont), has a finance job that’s allowed them to build a beautiful country house they’ll be moving into next month.

But when Charlie gets canned from work and can no longer meet his mortgage payments, the creditors quickly threaten to repossess the property, leaving his family stranded in their cramped Paris apartment. Only a few days later, Juliette gets her purse snatched by a brooding, attractive street thug named Manu (Duvauchelle). When she’s called to identify him in a police lineup, she decides to let him go, only to solicit his help in her scheme to steal a half-million Euros from a local bank.

Say what?

Indeed, it isn’t easy at first to accept what’s happening here, even if Frydman — who wrote Patrice Leconte’s Girl on the Bridge and directed the Vanessa Paradis-starrer, My Angel — tries to justify Juliette’s actions, showing how she’s invested her whole life into the new house and is willing to do anything to keep it. (Some viewers may wonder why she doesn’t just get a full-time job. Or a smaller house.) But going from there to her becoming Bonnie Parker, as Manu reluctantly takes on the role of Clyde Barrow, is a bit of a leap, and the scenario is rather hard to swallow.

On the other hand, Bekhti does a fine job channeling her character’s wavering states of desire and desperation as she and Manu stake out the bank while getting ready for the big night. The various planning sequences, which are de rigueur in any good heist movie, are also realistically handled, including scenes of Juliette Googling “ATM heist” and “prison terms for robbery” on the home computer.

Less believable is the burgeoning romance between the two heisters, which feels forced and not entirely necessary. Ditto for the various domestic disputes that arise when Charlie suspects his wife of leading a double life. It’s a lot to juggle in a film that never really nows where to lay its hat: Is it a love story? A socially minded crime movie? A family tragedy? By trying to be all things at once, Now or Never gradually loses its impact, and when the final robbery happens the stakes somehow seem lower.

Alongside the excellent Bekhti, Duvauchelle (who’s no stranger to playing thugs after debuting as one in Erick Zonca’s The Little Thief) is compelling as a guy drawn into a crime he hardly wants to commit, while Dupont’s slighted Charlie spends a lot of time sulking around the apartment and never becomes a useful character.

Tech credits are highlighted by Pierre-Hugues Galien’s shadowy cinematography, with many scenes shot in the far corners of Paris after sundown. It’s really the perfect setting for a film noir, in a movie that’s ultimately much less black than gray — probably too much so for its own good.

Production companies: Nord-Ouest Films, Mars Films
Cast: Leila Bekhti, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Arthur Dupont, Leo Lorleac’h, Orian Castano
Director, screenwriter: Serge Frydman
Producers: Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boeffard
Executive producer: Eve Francois Machuel
Director of photography: Pierre-Hugues Galien
Production designer: Pierre-Francois Limbosh
Costume designer: Virginie Montel
Editor: Celine Kelepikis
Composer: Laurent Perez Del Mar
International sales: Films Distribution

No rating, 95 minutes