Saturday, 31 March 2012

The French Guy

Director Ann Marie Fleming has claimed that The French Guy is inspired by true events. Designed as an exploration of love and violence, she describes the film as an attempt to explore the impossible goal we all share: the desire to control our environment.

As a French artist struggles to complete his masterpiece, his concentration is repeatedly disrupted by strange sounds coming from his neighbour’s apartment. That neighbour is Elizabeth – a woman who’s recently been discharged from hospital following major brain surgery.

Elizabeth wanders along a beach in a strange funk – her mind apparently severely affected by the procedure she’s undergone. When she spots a distressed musician throwing his guitar into the sea and apparently willing to throw himself in, too, Elizabeth immediately decides to take the disorientated man under her wing. She takes him home in order to nurse him back to health only for an allergic reaction to cause an attack of paranoia which sees her wrapping her entire apartment in clear plastic. And when a mishap with her new man spirals into a murderous rampage, it’s apparent that Elizabeth’s good intentions have gone horribly and gruesomely wrong…

It’s certainly an interesting premise for a film: the idea of a seemingly normal person undergoing surgery which turns them into a killer could have made for a gruesomely gothic horror, a superb farce or a blackly comic tale. Sadly, it’s none of these. Rather, it takes a little of each genre and throws them together in a mish-mash of styles and ideas which never really gels.

The French Guy opens promisingly with an extreme close-up of a gaping wound being stitched up. Gummy blood seeps from the cut as it’s closed with bright blue stitching. It’s an arresting image, and slightly disconcerting given that it occurs without context and before the credits. Unfortunately, the film never lives up to the shocking opening seconds.

Lead character Elizabeth (Babs Chula) is very difficult to warm to. She’s neither funny nor charming – and without developing a genuine feeling for her, it’s difficult to care much for her ongoing plight. Perhaps this is due to Elizabeth being deliberately bewildered and confused by a situation which has seen her discharged from hospital 24 hours after what seems to have been some kind of lobotomy. It’s a plot contrivance which is as confusing for the audience as it is for the character.

Her increasing paranoia over her head wound becoming infected is probably the most successful portion of the film – a couple of stylish scenes see flowers dispensing sneeze-inducing pollen in minute close-up and the apartment Elizabeth lives in filmed being cleaned from floor level. But the suave visuals and original ideas dry up from this point on.

Instead, the action is filmed fairly straightforwardly and the story becomes increasingly preposterous. A recurring lockjaw injury sees Elizabeth and her unnamed houseguest caught in a clinch which belongs in the likes of Dumb & Dumber but ends in bloodshed more appropriate to an extreme Asian action film. In other hands, this might have worked, but director Ann Marie Fleming seems to be unsure what genre her film belongs in and it straddles them extremely clumsily.

What follows is an increasingly repetitive and predictable procession of characters visiting the apartment, meeting sticky ends or coming close to uncovering the gruesome truth. It’s utterly contrived and fairly silly. At one point, a string quartet appear in the flat for extremely tenuous reasons, only for their screeching violins to accompany a vicious scissors-based murder. It’s a homage to Psycho which would see Hitchcock turning in his grave.

Worse still than the join-the-dots plot is the titular French Guy. It’s fair to say that his character has absolutely no relevance to the story. He’s a stereotypical French caricature: beret, striped t-shirt, a baguette under his arm and an arrogant artistic temperament. Occasionally, the action cuts to him as he listens to the grunting, groaning and moaning occurring in the next-door apartment whilst trying to paint his life model (who’s dressed as a French maid). These scenes serve no purpose, add nothing to the plot, and couldn’t even be considered comedic. There’s nothing funny about watching a stereotype making a tarte tatin.

As the film plods to its inevitable and obvious conclusion (via a truly appalling and misguided dream sequence), one can only wonder what might have been. A promising opening and a great idea have been transformed into a turgid, cliché laden lump of a movie. Writer/director Fleming might have had a singular artistic vision, but she really needed someone to rein her in and help her develop her ideas into a more cohesive whole. It would be easy to imagine something truly dark coming from a germ of an idea such as this: a giallo-style study of Elizabeth’s mental unravelling; a bleakly gothic horror; a blackly comic vision… It’s none of these – it’s too light of tone and too inconsistent.

There’s a good film in here somewhere. Sadly, it’s buried too far beneath the surface of this clumsily constructed and stylistically confused picture. The Canadian film industry is hardly world renowned, and The French Guy is a strong editor or producer away from being close to changing that situation. A sad waste of a good idea.

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