Cannes Martyn Conterio

Cannes 2019: Oh Mercy! review

★★☆☆☆

It’s time Cannes called a moratorium on screening the films of French director Arnaud Desplechin until he can come back with work as good as A Christmas Tale. Oh Mercy! has no business competing for the Palme d’Or.

Co-written with Léa Mysius, who penned the equally dull Ismael’s Ghosts for Desplechin (the Cannes opener in 2017 – another inexplicable selection), Oh Mercy! is set in France’s poorest commune (Roubaix), where 45 per cent of the population is unemployed and poverty is rife. In search of authenticity, every crime depicted in the film comes from real-life accounts, the opening legends tell us, but in contrast to Ladj Ly’s searing Les Misérables, Desplechin’s plodding tale of provincial plod comes across like a middlebrow television pilot about a new breed of lawman: a seriously chilled out, thoughtful, graceful, multicultural detective. Nothing can ruffle this guy’s feathers.

The depiction of a copper akin to a holy man, who takes statements from murderers like a priest takes confession from his flock, is potentially intriguing, but Desplechin’s sedate pacing, emotional sangfroid and smug toying with genre staples annoy too much for it come off as anything other than a misfire. What we get is a bourgeois police procedural: Fair-minded about power dynamics, when it should be more inquisitive and searching; empathetic to men and women bringing errant scum to book, though as if they’re completely unaffected by the privilege of a badge; curious like an anthropologist about the underclass, and oblivious to social reality and lives lived on the breadline, beyond standard-issue platitudes. It’s a fence-sitting, “Centrist Dad” vision of the world.

Roschy Zem is Daoud, a police captain investigating, with his team, a mysterious arson and the murder of an 80-year-old woman. Initially, they call in the usual suspects, a pair of toerags known to them for being Roubaix’s bad lads. Something doesn’t smell right, however. A couple living across the way, two women in a same-sex relationship, claim to know nothing, but then quickly point the finger at others. Daoud is drawn to Marie (Sara Forestier) and Claude (Léa Seydoux) because the holes in their story are Grand Canyon-sized.

Seydoux’s casting as a single mum, uneasy in a lesbian relationship with a Stage 5 clinger, speaking with the distinct and often mocked northern French accent (the subject of a smash-hit French comedy Welcome to the Sticks), is frankly disastrous casting. Bags under her eyes, going street in a baseball cap, acting more like a kid who hasn’t turned in her homework than a murder suspect having the screws turned against her, Seydoux “chavving” it up is utterly ludicrous. Some actors can play anything, but asking super-posh and glamourous Seydoux to play dirt poor is an ask too far.

The 72nd Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May.

Martyn Conterio | @Cinemartyn