Punk: London Film Festival Review

Spiky urban youth drama from Paris has visual fireworks but muted emotional impact. 

Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire's portrait of a troubled French teenager hits all the right notes but lacks a tune.

Set in the high-rise housing projects of suburban Paris, this ragged rites-of-passage drama follows a moody teenage boy who embraces the angry subculture of punk rock as a way of venting unresolved feelings over his absent father and suffocatingly close mother. Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire made his dramatic debut in 2008 with the African child-soldier story Johnny Mad Dog, and he brings a similar explosive energy to Punk, with plenty of visual fireworks but more muted emotional impact.

After premiering in France on the upmarket Franco-German television channel Arte, Punk came to the big screen at the London Film Festival last week. Based on a cult novel, the story feels slightly overfamiliar, especially as Sauvaire brings little new to the teens-in-trouble genre. But foreign distributor interest may be piqued by enduring worldwide interest in punk culture, plus the participation of former 1980s screen icon Béatrice Dalle. Further festival exposure seems likely, although theatrical prospects outside France are far from certain.

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Cherubic screen novice Paul Bartel gives a convincingly sullen, wounded performance as Paul, the only son of single mother Teresa (Dalle). Their intense love-hate relationship has a stifling intimacy with an unspoken, unsettling hint of incest. An increasingly ravaged but still-glamorous ruin, Dalle’s off-screen life as a headline-grabbing loose cannon adds extra heft to her role. Likewise the casting of hard rocker Bernie Bonvoisin, as the ex-musician father that Paul nervously stalks in his poignant hunger for parental validation, should resonate with French viewers.

Punk is based on the prize-winning 2007 novel Viens La Que Te Tue Ma Belle by 15-year-old Boris Bergmann, which was set in a more generalised rock-music milieu. In preparing for the film, Sauvaire’s research led him to discover pockets of fresh-faced young punks in full Mohawk-haired retro regalia on the streets of Paris and other cities. But their presentation here as an undiluted 21st  century gang culture, fighting street battles with racist skinheads and drunkenly trashing grocery stores, still feels oddly anachronistic. The film never explains this implausible ripple in the fabric of pop-culture space-time.

Sauvaire shoots with a hand-held rawness that chimes with the deliberately unpolished punk aesthetic, although his artful artlessness shines through in beautifully composed, lovingly lit shots of desolate housing projects and neon-lit nocturnal streets. There are also random moments of poetic surrealism, such as when Paul paints his face in white clown make-up. This may be an oblique reference to the visually flamboyant “krumping” scene in LA hip-hop and street-dance circles early last decade, which appeared in videos by Madonna, Black Eyed Peas  and others. Or possibly not, as once again the film-makers provide no explanatory context.

Punctuated with enjoyably immersive journeys into sweaty basement clubs and ear-bashing rock shows, Punk contains much potentially dramatic material, but ultimately suffers from a lack of narrative focus. The action begins to feel scrappy and disconnected midway through, with Paul essentially stuck in the same circular cycle of boredom and frustration, family friction and street violence. He has his heart broken in a short-lived romance, and finally plucks up the courage for a deflating encounter with his biological father, but otherwise little changes.

The film’s climax involves a road trip to Berlin and a concert by veteran British punk band The Adicts, who offer Paul some friendly backstage advice about growing up and staying true to his principles. A nice touch, but disappointingly low on bite or insight. If this fuzzy story feels unresolved at the end, it is partly because most teenage lives are open-ended first acts, but also because Sauvaire and his team never quite shape their juicy ingredients into a satisfying dramatic whole.

Venue: London Film Festival screening, October 15

Production companies: Anna Lena Films, Arte France

Producers: Victorien Vaney, Anna Vaney

Cast: Paul Bartel, Béatrice Dalle, Marie-Ange Casta, Ben Ragondin, Bernie Bonvoisin

Director: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

Writers: Camille Vizzanova, Georgina Tacou, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire

Cinematographer: Andre Chemetoff

Editors: Stephane Elmadian, Olivier Michaut-Alchourroun, Katie McQuerrey

Music: Nicolas Becker

Sales agent: Anna Lena Films, Paris

Rating TBC, 93 minutes