by Daniel Gorman Film

Oh Mercy! | Arnaud Desplechin

September 30, 2019

At his best, Arnaud Desplechin is a mad tinkerer, creating weird, expansive narratives that follow dysfunctional people through the vicissitudes of every day life. He’s got a big bag of tricks, infusing typically staid, talky family and romantic melodramas with boundless formal energy and a willingness to follow tangents and strange details. Strangely, Desplechin has now turned his attention to a fairly standard police drama with Oh Mercy!, shot in and around his hometown of Roubaix in northern France. Desplechin bifurcates the film, with the first half cross-cutting between multiple characters and cases in a kind of day-in-the-life scenario, before settling down in the second half for a long interrogation of two murder suspects (a dressed down, de-glamourized Lea Seydoux and Sara Forestier). This is all handled with aplomb, and it’s never boring, exactly. But it is very, very familiar stuff. Desplechin could have really exploded the format by creating a kaleidoscopic tapestry of voices and characters. But instead of really digging into the genre, he seems content to just scribble in the margins, confining his idiosyncrasies to brief interludes and some lovely, impressionistic cinematography by the great Irina Lubtchansky.

We spend the most amount of time with Captain Daoud (the stoic, magisterial Roschdy Zem), as well as a young, almost pathologically gung-ho officer named Louis (Antoine Reinartz), who occasionally seems like he might become the film’s main character. (Louis also gets intermittent hard boiled voice over narration that seems imported from an entirely different film.) But Desplechin keeps cutting away from him, juggling a multitude of characters, some of whom are seen repeatedly but given little dialogue or even proper names. There’s no discernible rhythm here, and Desplechin constantly scuttles any sense of narrative buildup with the constant cross-cutting. The cops eventually get their man — or women, in this case — but the film as a whole remains unfocused and diffuse. Desplechin touches on some of the sociopolitical nuances of policing, a hot-button issue right now.. (The captain is Muslim, and most of the suspects they bring in and interrogate are, too, although the murderers are young white women.) But if this is his attempt at commenting on the changing demographics of his home town and immigration in general, it’s pretty limp. Everything is wrapped up neatly in an oversimplified ending that offers narrative closure but barely acknowledges that life so rarely offers the same.

Published as part of New York Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 1.