Premiering at Venice, Gilles Bourdos’ Endangered Species plays like a French Riviera version of Robert Altman’s Shortcuts. It’s a deliciously shot vivisection of family life via three intertwining tales based on the short stories of American writer Richard Bausch.
We open with a thrilling ride through the night as a group of young people on mopeds and in cars, sounding horns and letting off flares, accompany newly weds Josephine (Alice Isaaz) and Thomas (Vincent Rottiers, the look of a young Gallic Edward Norton) through the night. They arrive at a high-class hotel and giddily dash up to their suite but within a few minutes – and in a scene as startling in its emotional brutality as the opening of Le Mepris – it becomes clear to the audience and Josephine that a big mistake has been made. From here we shift in tone to a father Vincent (Eric Elmosnino) on the phone with his daughter Melanie (Alice de Lenquesaing).
They both have bad news – the parents are separating, the daughter is pregnant and marrying a much older man (Carlo Brandt) – and the onion skin peeling of layers and the excellent acting builds up into an increasingly funny argument. These two long scenes set the two tones of the film – the comedy of a family coming to terms with shifting relationships and circumstances and the tragedy of a situation which feels immovable, paralysed, trapped and ultimately deadly. The two plots glancingly meet with a third involving a young student Anthony (Damien Chapelle) – his professor is Melanie’s husband to be – who must return to tend to his unhinged mother Nicole (Brigitte Catillon), who has lost the plot following her abandonment by her husband: “Thirty five years of marital misery are enough” is his adieu.
Anthony is chronically lonely, phoning sex chat lines and then asking the girls where they went to school and what do they do in real life. Vincent is now living next door to Josephine and Thomas where he can hear their abusive relationship. Set in Nice, Mark Lee Ping Bing’s cinematography contrasts the winter sunlight of his interiors with the warm oranges of the interiors, literally oranges in the case of Nicole’s house. Thomas works in forestry, climbing the tall palm trees to do some husbandry in a remarkable shot. It’s also a visual link to Josephine’s father (an ursine Gregory Gadebois), who works for the municipality on the roads, fixing streetlamps on the highway among other things.
The father is aware of Josephine’s situation and yet seems unable to intervene in any meaningful way, and despairing along with his bickering wife (Suzanne Clement) that their relationship has deteriorated to such an extent that Josephine would prefer her brutish husband. His tortured guilt and sense of helplessness will leave him sitting in his car with the rain dissolving the world beyond his windscreen. Adapted by Michel Spinosa and Bourdos from Bausch’s short stories, Endangered Species is a world away from the lush pleasures of Bourdos’ last film, Renoir. It portrays a family life that is messy and in flux but one that ultimately offers us companionship and love.