Gael Garcia Bernal plays a gypsy thief on the run in Gallic writer-director Joan Chemla’s feature debut, which premiered in Toronto’s Platform competition.
A Gallic whatchamacallit where style truly reigns over substance, debuting writer-director Joan Chemla’s If You Saw His Heart (Et si tu voyais son coeur) stars Gael Garcia Bernal as a petty gypsy thief hiding out in a Bukowski-esque fleabag hotel, where he crosses paths with a beautiful lost girl who may ultimately be the one that saves him.
That sounds like the plot for a pulpy film noir, and there are definitely echoes here of everyone from Jean-Pierre Melville to the Coen Bros to Gaspar Noe — the latter via Andre Chemetoff’s constantly roving, neon-lit camerawork. But with a fragmented narrative that tries to compensate for its lack of content by cutting around way too much, and with stock characters who feel like rejects from an aborted James M. Cain manuscript (the story was actually inspired by Cuban author Guillermo Rosales’ 1987 novel Boarding Home), there’s not much to chew on beyond all the pretty pictures and the two attractive leads. Following a premiere slot in Toronto’s Platform competition, Heart will primarily see action in Francophone and Spanish-speaking territories.
The film starts off impressively enough with an extended wedding sequence where we see Daniel (Bernal) hanging out with the groom, Costel (Nahuel Perez Biscayart). The two are best friends and belong to a gypsy community situated in the south of France (per the press notes the movie was shot in Marseille), and there’s an epic elegance to the way Chemla portrays the long and boisterous celebration, with the camera gliding along in slow-motion as the sound cuts in-and-out and things get a bit raucous.
Once the party’s over, the script takes one of several sharp turns, flashing back-and-forth to reveal how Daniel lured Costel into a life of crime and feels responsible for his accidental death. Now he’s on the run from Costel’s lunatic older brother, arriving at a derelict motel called Metropole that surely has the world’s worst Trip Advisor rating, with a sociopath (Karim Leklou) for a manager who enjoys beating up his guests.
The hiding out scenes tend to recall Alain Delon holed up in his flat in Le Samourai, and Daniel keeps quiet and out of sight as more flashbacks show snippets of the robberies he once committed. We spend a lot of time with the troubled young man, hearing a few of his thoughts in voiceover, yet like everyone else in the movie — this includes the Hungarian guy who likes to pee in the hallway — Daniel is devoid of any real substance or psychology.
Thus, by the time he runs into the bewitching Francine (Marine Vacth, The Double Lover), who arrives at the Metropole for mysterious reasons, we don’t care much whether the two fall for one another. Also, it’s hard to invest in a relationship that begins with a scene where Francine confides in Daniel about the son she lost, and he responds by sticking his hand up her dress and trying to choke her. What the hell’s wrong with these people?
Without sustainable characters or a clear storyline, the best Chemla can do is dish out lots of atmosphere, which she does quite well through vibrant cinematography and production design that’s equal parts Barton Fink and Enter the Void. It creates the perfect backdrop for Daniel’s long journey into physical and emotional purgatory, but the viewer winds up getting stuck in there with him and loses any interest in his possible redemption. For all its stylistic prowess, what Heart really needs is a heart.
Production company: Nord-Ouest Films
Cast: Gael Garcia Bernal, Marine Vacth, Nahuel Perez Biscayart, Karim Leklou
Director: Joan Chemla
Screenwriters: Joan Chemla, Santiago Amigorena
Producers: Pierre Guyard
Executive producers: Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boeffard
Director of photography: Andre Chemetoff
Production designer: Alain Frentzel
Costume designer: Elfie Carlier
Editor: Beatrice Herminie
Composer: Gabriel Yared
Casting directors: Alexandre Nazarian, Cendrine Lapuyade
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Platform)
In French, Calo