Vandal: Film Review

A portrait of the artist as a young tagger.

Writer-director Helier Cisterne's debut follows one teen's initiation into the world of graffiti.

PARIS -- While most people associate France with baguettes, berets and bad hygiene, the country actually has one of the world’s most thriving street culture scenes, with a huge hip-hop following and, as anyone who’s ventured into Paris’ suburbs can attest, a landscape marked by graffiti. The latter is the setting for director Helier Cisterne’s first feature, Vandal, a rather systematic coming-of-age story whose main interest is its depiction of a gang of urban teens tagging up the city of Strasbourg.

Released by Pyramide on a small number of local screens, the film should score modest numbers and will definitely make Cisterne a talent to watch. Overseas slots should consist of Gallic film weeks and festivals, although venturous distributors could be piqued by its unique subject matter, especially for a movie made in France.

While films like Wild Style, Style Wars and the recent Gimme the Loot have been chronicling U.S. graffiti writers for three decades now, this has been much less the case in Gaul, even if movies like La Haine and Ma 6-T va crack-er were among the first to capture the sights and sounds of Paris’ banlieues.

Writer-director Cisterne and co-scribes Gilles Taurand (Farewell, My Queen) and Katell Quillevere (Suzanne) attempt to remedy this with their rather academically structured story, about a problematic 15-year-old, Cherif (Zinedine Benchenine), who, after being arrested for the umpteenth time, is sent to live with his Strasbourg-based uncle (Jean-Marc Barr) and aunt (Brigitte Sy), while his deadbeat dad (TV comic Ramzy) resides a few miles away.

Enrolling in a vocational school and eventually interning at his father’s construction site, Cherif seems to be headed nowhere fast. That is until he learns that his supposedly goody two-shoes cousin, Thomas (Emile Berling), is actually one of seven members of local tagging squad ORK, sneaking out at nights to bomb the city’s walls and rooftops.

It’s a clever switcheroo to have the bourgeois child be the true bad boy here, and it’s also quite realistic about the co-opting of graffiti art by middle and upper-class kids. Yet outside this reversal, Vandal plays out extremely routine-like as it tries to wed Cherif’s personal issues -- involving his dad and sort-of girlfriend, Elodie (Chloe Lecerf) -- with the gang’s pursuit of an anonymous tagger known for his death-defying pieces. Likewise, Cherif doesn’t display much of a personality, even if the filmmakers try to give him a veritable raison d’etre in the movie’s somewhat stirring finale.

Stylistically, Cisterne and DP Hichame Alaouie (Private Property) tend to operate in Dardennes bros. default mode, with countless over-the-shoulder shots and much of the action captured in close-ups. This does little justice to the film’s setting, although the sequence where Cherif first discovers Thomas nighttime exploits is impressively handled, and thankfully seen from a distance.

The cast, which mixes French stars like Ramzy and Marina Fois (playing Cherif’s distant mother) with several unknowns, is generally convincing, even if newcomers Benchenine and Lecerf are sometimes too low-energy to make their characters’ sporadic romance worth watching.

An electro score by Ulysse Klotz (Low Life) provides a lively accompaniment to the various bombing sequences, which were created by real-life taggers, including legendary French graffiti artist Lokiss. In that respect, Vandal offers up a unique cinematic experience, at least in local terms, although there's ultimately little to be found once you start scratching its surface.

Opens: Wednesday, Oct. 9 (in France)

Production companies: Les Films du Belier, Rhone-Alpes Cinema, Herodiade Films

Cast: Zinedine Benchenine, Chloe Lecerf, Emile Berling, Jean-Marc Barr, Ramzy, Marina Fois

Director: Helier Cisterne

Screenwriters: Gilles Taurand, Helier Cisterne, Katell Quillevere

Producer: Justin Taurand

Director of photography: Hichame Alaouie

Production designer: Anna Falgueres

Music: Ulysse Klotz

Editor: Thomas Marchand

Graffiti: Pisko Logic, Orka

Sales Agent: Films Distribution

No rating, 83 minutes