'Persona non grata': Film Review

Courtesy of Mars Films
A well-acted, bleak-as-black film noir.

Roschdy Zem ('Chocolat,' 'Nothing to Hide') directs and stars in this dark French thriller, also featuring Nicolas Duvauchelle and Raphaël Personnaz.

Everyone is Persona non grata in director-actor Roschdy Zem’s latest feature, which he adapted from Brazilian filmmaker Beto Brant’s Sao Paulo-set thriller O Invasor. (The original movie premiered at Sundance in 2002 under the English-language title The Trespasser.)

Featuring a trio of highly unpleasant crooks who wind up going head to head to head, with Zem himself playing the foulest — and, actually, the most likable — of the bunch, this dark and stylistic exercise is a bit too brutal to be fully enjoyable. But it’s also well-performed, gripping and nasty enough to garner up interest outside of France, where it was released mid-July.

Shot with handheld verve by Renaud Chassaing (The Clearsteam Affair), who seems to have plunged the entirety of his footage through a mud bath, the story follows a pair of hungry real estate developers and supposed best buddies, José (Nicolas Duvauchelle) and Maxime (Raphaël Personnaz). Unhappy with the ways of their tyrannical boss, Eddy (Frédéric Pierrot), they decide to get rid of him by hiring a professional killer to rub the man out.

But by entrusting the job to the sly and psychotic Moïse (Zem), which is French for Moses, they’ve unwittingly let a fox into the henhouse — or more like a wolf into a fox house, considering that every character in this profoundly bleak thriller comes across as a depraved thug.

This even applies to Eddy’s teenage daughter, Anaïs (the promising Nadia Terskiewicz), who, after hardly mourning her father’s demise, strikes up an affair with Moïse. Not only is the man more than twice her age, but he’s such a manipulative animal that you can almost hear his fangs scraping across the floor (as the French like to say). And this is something that Anaïs actually likes.

Meanwhile, José and Maxime have their hands full trying to contain the uncontainable. They thought Moïse would go away once the job was done and he got his money, mais non, here he is hanging around the construction site, harassing employees and forcing his way into their company. Soon enough they’re paying him off, and yet he keeps coming back, including in one hilarious scene where he coerces them to invest over $100,000 in the career of an amateur rapper.

As a director, Zem does a great job creating that unbearable feeling of a virus that has been unleashed and won’t go away until it kills you. And as an actor, he is formidable playing the said virus Moïse — a man who seems extremely comfortable, wearing wide-open Hawaiian shirts and a constant merde-eating grin, in his position as the absolute usurper.

Less convincing are the pair of knuckleheads who hired him in the first place. Not that Duvauchelle and Personnaz are bad actors — they’re both quite good as overtly ambitious young men who could use a serious moral flogging. But José and Maxime are themselves two incredibly conniving and unruly people: the former in his dumb-as-nails decision to start cheating on his wife the moment the plan is enacted, the latter in his slick way of always trying to smooth things over, although he’s the one who brought Moïse on in the first place. (And if you think Maxime is the loving husband he claims to be, wait until José walks in on him getting fellatio from his secretary.)

It’s as if Zem watched A Simple Plan, Blood Simple, or any other movie where pulling off a crime proves to be a not-so-simple endeavor, and decided they weren’t nearly as dark as they should be. The result ultimately proves too much to handle for the characters and, at times, for the viewer, with the film’s grisly and overheated denouement heading more or less where you expect.

And yet, Zem’s delectable portrayal of supreme evil is nearly worth the price of admission — it’s perhaps the closest thing French cinema has ever come, at least recently, to the presence of Robert Mitchum or Robert De Niro in either Cape Fear. With his nonchalant, almost laissez-faire approach to extortion and murder, Moïse is the kind of bad guy who could kill you with his smile.

Production companies: Bizibi, Hole in One, NJJ Entertainment, Mars Films, Les Films du 10
Cast: Nicolas Duvauchelle, Raphaël Personnaz, Roschdy Zem, Nadia Tereskiewicz, Anne Charrier
Director: Roschdy Zem
Screenwriters: Roschdy Zem, Olivier Gorce, based on the film
O Invasor by Beto Brant
Producer: Emmanuel Agneray
Director of photography: Renaud Chassaing
Production designer: Jérémie Duchier
Costume designer: Sabina Riccardi
Editor: Monica Coleman
Composer: Nathaniel Méchaly
Casting director: Nicolas Ronchi
Sales: Wild Bunch

In French
92 minutes