'Wild Life' ('Vie Sauvage'): San Sebastian Review

Le Pacte
Though watchable and thought-provoking, the film has a hole where its heart should be

Mathieu Kassovitz stars in Cedric Kahn's drama about a man and his kids on the run from the law

An embittered father and his sons give the French legal system a good run for its money in Wild Life. Based on a true story of a man who abducted his sons and eluded capture for 11 years, it uses gentle drama, gentle plotting and gentle suspense -- there’s very little that’s wild about Life -- to raise time-honored questions about what’s best for our kids. Thankfully it delivers no real answers, prioritizing show over tell in a drama which is never dull but which, given the potential of its source material, never really catches fire. Nonetheless, the undeniable human interest of the project should, despite the film’s flaws, be sufficient to ensure art house and festival play following a Special Mention from the San Sebastian jury

Cedric Kahn is best-known for Roberto Succo and Red Lights, both in their own way outsider films. The outsider of Wild Life is altogether less aggressive. During the tour de force opening sequence, shot with a handheld urgency to which the film never returns, Nora (Celine Sallette) escapes with her young sons Tsali (David Gastou), Okyesa (Sofiane Neveu) and Thomas (Tara Jay Bangalter) to her parents’ house. But the boys’ father, Paco (high-profile Gallic actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz), soon catches up with them.

A judge having decreed that Paco can only see his children a few times per year, he makes off with Tsali and Okyesa, with Thomas choosing to stay with Nora. What followed in real life was an incredible 11 years of life under threat of capture, here somewhat awkwardly reduced to feature length. Paco and Nora had raised the kids in communes, a wild life on which Nora has now turned her back, but to which Paco determinedly returns the kids with the idea of educating them himself. “We have nothing now,” he tells them. “Just friends, the sky, and providence.”

After a bit of business in which it’s revealed that Nora has gone to the papers with their story and is looking for them, they change their names and retire to a mountainside commune where, as is well documented, they don’t live happily ever after. The script tackles only the beginning of their 11 years on the run and the end of it, and the time shift, involving cut hair falling on the floor and the transformation of Tsali into Johnny Depp look-alike Romain Depret, isn’t handled well, but at least allows the audience to separate the two kids out from one another — through the film’s earlier sections, they’re indistinguishable on all but the physical level.

There is an admirable sense that Kahn is trying to do justice to the event and the book by refusing to take the obvious route and heroize Paco. On the contrary, Wild LIfe is almost entirely lacking in tenderness, which may derive from this wish to sidestep sentimentality. (In an early scene, Paco carries a monkey on his back — which another kind of filmmaker might have milked later. But here, to the irritation of some and the relief of others, the monkey promptly disappears.)

If the film feels like a wasted opportunity at the emotional level, it’s down to the way Paco has been conceived: highly articulate when talking to the law and indeed when waxing lyrical about providence and the sky, neither he nor the script provides even a single father-son dialogue dedicated to their remarkable situation. Such a dialogue might have served to dramatize and deepen the relationship between them, but as it stands we’re left with a portrait of a man who has abducted his kids to make a point — since he likes living wild, they should too.

Dour, self-centered, tight-lipped and unsmiling, Paco is a character who, despite his obvious commitment to his kids, seems to loves them less than he loves his animals. It’s an interesting notion, but one which Wild Life doesn’t explore, and it leaves a big emotional hole not only in his sons’ lives through the film’s latter sections, but at the center of this child custody drama too — which is quite a feat. Paco is superbly played by Kassovitz as a character still struggling to keep his hatred under control, like the characters he directed 20 years ago in La Haine.

That said, Wild Life has smart things to say about what education means (Paco makes a nice distinction between education, which is obligatory in France, and schooling, which is not), while the film as a whole represents an extended inquiry into the relative values of that old theme, the difference between nature and nurture.

Despite Wild Life’s obvious commitment to the anti-schmaltz-campaign, schmaltz does creep in, strangely whenever a blast of classical music comes in at cathartic moments, and irritatingly in the final scene, which it comes close to sabotaging entirely. Euromovie watchers will be impressed by the imprimatur of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne as co-producers.

Production company: Les Films du Lendemain, Les Films du Fleuve, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Mathieu Kassovitz, Celine Sallette, David Gastou, Sofiane Neveu, Romain Depret, Jules Ritmanic, Jenna Thiam, Tara Jay Bangalter
Director: Cedric Kahn
Screenwriters: Nathalie Najem, Cedric Kahn, adapted from a book by Okwari, Shahi’Yena, Xavier Fortin and Laurence Vidal
Producer: Kristina Larsen
Director of photography: Yves Cape
Production designer: Guillaume Deviercy
Costume designer: Natalie Raoul
Editor: Simon Jacquet
Composer: Pascal Jasmes, Jean-Pierre Duret, Sylvain Malbrant, Thomas Gauder
Sales: Le Pacte

No MPAA rating, 106 minutes