Tonnerre: Film Review

Tonnerre Film still - H 2013

Tonnerre Film still - H 2013

An intriguing though somewhat uneven feature debut that’s both casually unsettling and emotionally apt.

Writer-director Guillaume Brac and star Vincent Macaigne ("Age of Panic") team up for this debut feature, which premiered in competition at Locarno.

PARIS -- Switching gears after their highly regarded medium-length movie, A World Without Women, filmmaker Guillaume Brac and actor Vincent Macaigne deliver a darker and more emotionally-skewed debut feature with their tale of romantic obsession, Tonnerre. Once again bolstered by a terrific turn from Macaigne as an affable loser – and one who becomes increasingly off-putting as the plot advances -- this low-key effort is somewhat tonally inconsistent, yet its strong performances and naturalistic setting make for an intriguing New Wave-ish dramedy that deserves a look.

After premiering in competition at Locarno and receiving the top prize at Bordeaux, Tonnerre should continue its fest run, followed by a January local release and possibilities for niche art-house distribution outside the usual Francophone outlets -- especially those catering to indie film fans.

Indeed, the movie’s blend of small town realism and 30-something existentialism plays very much like a French version of mumblecore, with Macaigne -- who starred in a handful of likeminded features this year (Age of Panic, The Rendez-Vous of Déja Vu and 2 Autumns, 3 Winters) -- now the movement’s definitive poster boy.

But while Brac’s 58-minute featurette was somewhere between the work of Andrew Bujalski, Jacques Rozier and Eric Rohmer, with Macaigne playing a forlorn beach boy trying to woo a pair of vacationers, the director and actor concoct a whole different character this time around, in a movie that grows gradually unsettling as its hero starts to fly off the handle.

At first, there’s not that much to fear in the boyish, mildly successful rocker Maxime (Macaigne), who moves back in with his dad (Bernard Menez) for unknown reasons, recording songs in his bedroom and wandering around their tiny provincial city of Tonnerre (which also means “thunder” in French), located in the Burgundy region.

Maxime quickly strikes up a relationship with the young and beautiful journalist, Melodie (Solene Rigot, Renoir), and what feels like a case of harmless puppy love soon turns into much more as his passion winds up getting the better of him. When Melodie suddenly breaks the relationship off via text message, things take a surprising turn for the worse, with the third act playing out like a slightly unhinged suspenser, complete with cops, guns and a kidnapping.

Yet Brac is clearly after something else here, and if Tonnerre does feel tonally discombobulated at times, the emotional underpinnings of Maxime’s acts are intelligently mapped out, especially with regards to the troubled past he shares with his dad. And while it may seem overstated, even silly, when the benign loser transforms into a public menace, there’s a sad desperation about Maxime that makes him someone you want to care about, even after he crosses the line.

Macaigne’s performance goes a long way in rendering things palpable, and though he starts off as the sort of sad sack man-boy he’s played in Woman and other films, he shows impressive range once he becomes both unhinged and unbearable in the latter reels. Rigot is equally compelling as the manhandled Melodie, even if her oft-disoriented heroine winds up showing less inner complexity than her male counterparts. As an aging French everyman with a few secrets of his own, vet actor Menez (Day for Night, La Grande bouffe) provides a few welcome comic highlights.

Shot in a quasi-documentary style by DP Tom Harari (Suzanne), and set to a woozy guitar-fueled score by the French singer Rover (including several songs performed by Macaigne himself), Tonnerre is at once emotionally succinct and cinematically nonchalant, combining scripted drama with what seem like off-the-cuff scenes where local townfolk serve as bit players. While such a mixed method has its drawbacks, particularly late in the game, Brac has nonetheless crafted an involving character study, with characters that resonate like real people.

Opens: Jan. 29, 2014 (in France); in Locarno Film Festival (competition)

Production companies: Rectangle Productions, Wild Bunch, France 3 Cinema

Cast: Vincent Macaigne, Solene Rigot, Bernard Menez, Jonas Bloquet

Director: Guillaume Brac

Screenwriter: Guillaume Brac, Helene Ruault, in collaboration with Catherine Paille

Producer: Alice Girard

Director of photography: Tom Harari

Production designer: Helena Cisterne

Costume designers: Sandra Besnard, Emmanuelle Pastre

Music: Rover

Editor: Damien Maestraggi

Sales Agent: Wild Bunch

No rating, 100 minutes