'Willy 1er': Film Review

WILLY 1ER - Still - H - 2016
Les Films Velvet/Baxter Films/Unifrance
An oddball but affecting indie.

Non-professional actor Daniel Vannet stars as twin brothers from the sticks in this ultra-indie film from France.

A burly 50-year-old Frenchman from the sticks who has just lost his twin brother to suicide is the unlikely protagonist of the tragicomic indie Willy 1er. Unusually, the film was directed by no less than four people — Marielle Gautier, Hugo P. Thomas and brothers Ludovic and Zoran Boukherma but what’s even stranger is how far removed this slow-moving, dialogue-light and eccentric little film is from most of the output of Luc Besson, at whose film school in Paris the quartet met and studied.

Winner of this year’s Prix d’Ornano for Best French Debut, attributed by foreign film journalists and critics in Paris, this recently went out in French theaters in limited release and should interest festivals and platforms looking for oddball indie fare.

The film is partially inspired by the life of Daniel Vannet, who was illiterate until he was 45 and who plays Willy, a variation on his own persona, as well as his identitacal twin brother, the ill-fated Michel. The entire film is constructed around Vannet’s burly presence and the non-professional actor delivers a touching and vanity-free performance that combines understated melancholy with deadpan drolleries.

Willy 1er is a very modest character study more than anything else, as the sad-sack protagonist leaves the house of his parents after the death of his brother because they threaten to put him in a home. Each entry on his short wish list of desires — I’ll have a house, I’ll have a scooter, I’ll have friends… — is used as a chapter heading, which is shown on-screen in kitschy graphics that look like they were dredged up from some early 1990s website hosted on GeoCities. Along the way, Willy has unpleasant run-ins with some not-so-friendly locals at a bar in the village down the road and he tries to get his social worker (Camille RewindsNoemie Lvovsky, the only famous name in the film) to help him out, though adult behavior is clearly something that he still has to at least partially learn.

His brother’s death is of course on his mind a lot and the four writer-directors suggest this by having Michel appear at regular intervals in a translucent version. Sometimes, the effect is silently gloomy, while at other times it add a touch of pokerfaced humor, like when Michel’s seen cleaning the windows when Willy is preparing his apartment to have someone over for dinner.

The film’s title, with the protagonist’s name styled like a king’s, literally puts Willy first but also hints at the existence and even the importance of Willy’s colleague at the supermarket where he finds a job, also called Willy (Romain Leger). This character, Willy II if you will, is a cross-dressing younger man with a bad peroxide job who dreams of being an artist and moving to Germany (“Merkel has cojones,” he explains to the clueless Willy I, whose entire world consists of the village where he was born and the neighboring village where he has found a job and a place to live). 

The squalid interiors and exteriors and the portrayal of various redneck characters won’t cause a stampede to the French countryside anytime soon though the developing friendship between the Willies at least constitutes a bright spot. Perhaps because the young directors probably grew up in the 1990s, there are several influences from that decade on the film’s look and music. Whether intentionally or not, there are also echoes of German-language cinema from a decade later, with films such as Schultze Gets the Blues and Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export displaying a similar sense of black and deadpan humor and an interest in older, marginalized protagonists.

Production companies: Baxter Films, Les Films Velvet
Cast: Daniel Vannet, Noemie Lvovsky, Romain Leger, Robert Follet, Genevieve Plet, Eric Jacquet, Kiki, Lea Viller, Alexandre Jacques, Catherine Lefrançois
Writer-Directors: Ludovic Boukherma, Zoran Boukherma, Marielle Gautier, Hugo P. Thomas
Producers: Pierre-Louis Garnon, Frederic Jouve
Director of photography: Thomas Rames
Editors: Xavier Sirven, Heloise Pelloquet  
Music: Hugo P. Thomas, Sofiane Kadi
Sales: Alma Cinema

In French
82 minutes