'SMS': Film Review

SMS Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Warner Bros. France

SMS Still - H 2014

Neither fish nor fowl, though with superior technical credits

Gabriel Julien-Laferriere's second film, which adapts Laurent Benegui's eponymous novel, stars Guillaume De Tonquedec as a man for whom Murphy's Law would be a step up

The only thing that keeps a luckless French father from falling to a certain death from a seaside cliff is a good old-fashioned telephone cord in director Gabriel Julien-Laferriere's SMS, an adaptation of Laurent Benegui's eponymous novel about, among other things, the dangers of cell-phone radiation. It's a nice ironic touch in a film that's otherwise practically devoid of satire, humor or real emotion, though at least all technicians involved will get some prime demo-reel material out of their efforts. Released in France to little fanfare this week, this should manage to do semi-decent initial numbers, largely because local comedy box-office canon Franck Dubosc has a supporting role alongside lead Guillaume De Tonquedec, even if the film's more of a muddled melodrama than anything inspiring laughs.

In the film's in media res opening, Laurent (De Tonquedec) is dangling head-down from said telephone cord, which inspires him to — what else? — talk at length to his six-year-old son, Milo (Timothe Vom Dorp), in voiceover about how he ended up there and which life lessons are hidden in all the mistakes he's made as a father. Cue the giant chunks of flashback that accompany the narration, which chronicles how Laurent's misery started when the roof he'd recently had repaired by a dodgy Russian (Oleg Kupchek) started leaking during a downpour, how he discovers his wife (Anne Marivin) is cheating on him, how his company has gone into a sudden and inexplicable debt that'll mean certain bankruptcy and how his mobile phone is stolen, which prompts him to run after the thief, which might've been a good idea if it didn't mean abandoning Milo in the middle of the street. To make matters worse, because one catastrophe occurs after the other, Laurent has no time to explain himself to any of the people involved, which results in him being wrongly accused of a series of increasingly grave offenses.

After this rather incredible — in the sense of not at all believable — series of terrible coincidences on a Tuesday morning, a number of options are open, including the Hitchcockian innocent-man scenario or the tragic or comedic route. But somewhat oddly, the film's about as far removed from Hitchcock as could be and, rather frustratingly, doesn't commit to either comedy or tragedy. Unfortunately, the middle ground between the two is a rather boring place to be, even if Julien-Laferriere (whose first film was the hilarious, politically incorrect Neuilly Yo Mama!) and editor Stephan Couturier try to compensate for the lack of humor or drama with a manic energy that's simply exhausting, since nothing seems to be at stake for these sketchily drawn characters.

Also rather oddly, SMS's underlying critique of cell-phone radiation, which includes a subplot involving Laurent's brother, Vincent (Dubosc), who's in just a handful of scenes, is left largely unexploited. For example, the film does nothing with the fact that for a stretch, Laurent finds refuge at the home of a former lover (Geraldine Pailhas), who works at a cell-phone data gathering facility.

One suspects this all made more sense in the novel, though at 84 frenetic minutes, the film gives the impression it may have undergone several trims that might have left what made the novel worthwhile on the cutting-room floor (or more likely, the virtual wastebasket on the editor's computer). Most disturbingly, the film's main Gordian narrative knot is cleft about 50 minutes in, with the last half-hour dedicated to such inconsequential things as questions surrounding Milo's paternity.

De Tonquedec, who starred in popular TV series Fais pas ci, fais pas ca and the 2012 box-office phenomenon What's In a Name, is a nice factotum for a French Everyman, even if the absence of any specific characteristics for Laurent is exactly why the film plays more like series of unfortunate events than anything inducing laughter or tears. The supporting actors are all adequate.

Except for the obvious problems with the screenplay, credited to the director and Benegui (also a director and producer in his own right), the film's assembly is particularly impressive. Axel Cosnefroy's camera work is fresh and energetic; production design, locations and special effects continuously impress ,and the music choices add a welcome contemporary air without being too dated. Too bad all that terrific work was at the service of a story that's not sure what it's really trying to say or do.

Production company: Les Productions du Tresor
Cast: Guillaume De Tonquedec, Geraldine Pailhas, Frank Dubosc, Timothe Vom Dorp, Philippe Lefebvre, Naidra Ayadi, Oleg Kupchik
Director: Gabriel Julien-Laferriere
Screenwriters: Gabriel Julien-Laferriere, Laurent Benegui, screenplay based on the novel by Benegui
Producer: Alain Attal
Director of photography: Axel Cosnefroy
Production designer: Michel Barthelemy
Costume designer: Marie-Laure Lasson
Editor: Stephan Couturier
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 84 minutes