'Oh Mercy!' ('Roubaix, une lumiere'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Cannes Film Festival
CSI: Desplechin Style.

The latest from French auteur and Croisette regular Arnaud Desplechin ('My Golden Days,' 'Ismael's Ghosts') stars Bond Girl Lea Seydoux as an impoverished murder suspect.

French auteur Arnaud Desplechin (My Golden Days, recent Cannes opener Ismael’s Ghosts) gives us two movies for the price of one with Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, une lumiere). Or, to be more precise, one fascinating, hourlong movie about the lower classes and underbelly of contemporary northern France and the other an hourlong CSI: Roubaix episode that’s filled with not only familiar but also quite repetitive interrogations, prison-cell visits and reconstruction attempts at the actual crime scene. 

Because of Desplechin’s reputation, a Cannes competition slot and the participation of Bond Girl Lea Seydoux in a supporting role — her 60-minute impression of Giovanni Bragolin’s The Crying Boy is convincing, if particularly lachrymose — his 12th feature should nonetheless be in demand at festivals. In terms of theatrical distribution, however, the target audience for this unusual twofer isn’t exactly clear.

The screenplay, written by the helmer with regular collaborator Lea Mysius, was inspired by the 2008 TV documentary Roubaix commissariat central, affaires courantes, directed by Mosco Levi Boucault. That title followed police officers at work at the central precinct in Roubaix, Desplechin’s hometown on the Belgian border that counts about 100,000 inhabitants and that viewers familiar with Desplechin’s work will recognize as a familiar backdrop. They investigated a case much like the one that will come to the fore in this film's second half.

Unlike the relatively well-off — not to use the word 'bourgeois' — people showcased in previous titles such as A Christmas Tale, Kings and Queen and even the auteur’s most recent work, Desplechin here plunges into the lives of the marginalized, the destitute and those who have to fight to even be part of the working class. They are the ones that come into contact most often with the police, led in Roubaix by the experienced and quiet but firm Captain Daoud (Roschdy Zem).

A young and new recruit, redhead Louis (Antoine Reinartz), arrives early on. Though he is not the protagonist, he is occasionally heard in voiceover, in which he describes his new city, explaining for example that “Roubaix is France’s poorest municipality,” probably for viewers for whom the images of burning cars in the empty and derelict streets and rumors about drugs at schools and talk of prostitution near the border aren’t sufficiently clear signs that Roubaix isn’t in the best of shapes.

The early going is dynamic and, occasionally, even action-packed, as Desplechin cuts quickly between different cases, including a knife fight during a large Christmas dinner; a fishy-sounding story from a man (Philippe Duquesne) about being attacked by a group of foreigners with a blowtorch; and the umpteenth disappearance of a 17-year-old girl (Maissa Taleb) who can’t get along with her parents. While there isn’t enough time for much in terms of individual characterization, what quickly becomes clear is not only how Daoud works but also the world within which he operates every day. 

It is also a convincing sketch of a part of the French population that’s still largely ignored by cinema, and what’s most interesting about Desplechin’s portrayal is that we see them through the prism of a local cop who, unlike his immigrant family who went back to the Maghreb, can’t get himself to leave the town of his childhood. Daoud doesn’t seem to be an idealist exactly, so he doesn’t stay to try and make the city a better place, but he’s the kind of man who finds peace and calm in knowing where his place in the world is.

To suggest just how comfortable and even beautiful the rough neighborhoods might feel to Daoud, Desplechin and his regular collaborators, cinematographer Irina Lubtchansky and composer Gregoire Hetzel provide almost velvety images with smooth zooms and pans and a rich orchestral score that is heard almost non-stop during the film’s involving — if finally not particularly deep — first half.

(Spoilers in the following two paragraphs.) One of the crimes that Louis investigates involves arson in a house in a very modest street, where Claude (Lea Seydoux) and her girlfriend, Marie (Sara Forestier), are two of the neighbors that are questioned as witnesses. Their case will eventually balloon into a much more complex murder case that takes over the narrative’s entire second half, as the women become suspects. Worried about their future and Claude’s child, they are initially interrogated separately, where they deliver quite different versions of what happened, told through tears and with possible remorse and shot through with untold worries about their futures.

While this entire sequence is well-acted by a deglammed Seydoux, a well-cast Forestier (Suzanne) and the actors playing the police corps, Desplechin struggles to make the segment feel as vital and fascinating as the first hour. There's little in terms of the tension associated with police thrillers, but it's also not a socio-realist drama or a character study, instead echoing parts of these genres at different times so there's a constant sense of deja vu and reminders of other, better films without the material ever really coming into its own. The near-absence of a score imbues these precinct scenes with more of a verite-like feel but that, too, we’ve seen before.

The low point is a risible succession of scenes very late in the film in which Daoud visits each woman in her cell and wants to tie their childhood — you were a pretty girl, you were an ugly girl… — to their crimes in about two sentences of Psychology 101 each. It is here that it’s clear we know enough about Daoud to get that he’s more intelligent than that, and also not enough about the female characters to actually realize whether they happen to be the walking clichés predestined for crime that Daoud seems to suggest they are — or whether they might actually be more complex women with unique stories. 

Perhaps somewhat ironically, the film that Desplechin’s extended, overly detailed second half most brings to mind is Xavier Beauvois’ The Young Lieutenant, from 2005. That pic also co-starred Zem as an equally conscientious cop and was also produced by Why Not Productions, though its take on, among other things, the drudgery of police work in a complicated country contained characters — and especially a female lead character — that were much more convincingly limned than they are here. 

Production companies: Why Not Productions, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Roschdy Zem, Lea Seydoux, Sara Forestier, Antoine Reinzartz, Chloe Simoneau, Betty Cartoux, Jeremy Brunet, Stepahen Duquenoy, Philippe Duquesne, Anthony Salamone, Ilyes Bensalem, Abdellatif Sedegui, Sulvie Moreaux, Diya Chalaoui, Bouzid Bouhdida, Maissa Taleb
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Screenwriters: Arnaud Desplechin, Lea Mysius; screenplay inspired by the film Roubaix commissariat central, affaires courantes
Producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Gregoire Sorlat
Director of photography: Irina Lubtchansky
Production designer: Toma Baqueni
Costume designer: Nathalie Raoul
Editor: Laurence Briaud
Music: Gregoire Hetzel
Casting: Alexandre Nazarian, Clement Morelle
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Wild Bunch

In French
119 minutes