Having been bestowed the unusual honor of being selected for a 2020 Cannes Film Festival that never was (slotted into a seemingly new “Comedy” section, along with four other titles), Emmanuel Courcol’s The Big Hit (alternatively, Un triomphe) here makes its North American debut. Courcol is more recognizable as an actor in his home country, and likely not recognized at all by American audiences (his previous film, 2016’s Ceasefire, did not receive U.S. distribution), but such metrics aren’t really relevant to The Big Hit, which is ultimately more of a high-concept dramedy than an auteurist undertaking.
Based on a true story, though rewritten to transport the action from ’80s Sweden to contemporary France, the film follows a rudderless, divorced working actor who signs on to teach theatre at a local men’s prison. One might already have an idea of the kind of movie The Big Hit is based on that partial premise alone, and indeed, this film fulfills the promise of its fairly archetypal plot without really ever straying from the anticipated beats (barring two admittedly exciting moments of narrative disruption that save the film from being wholly clichéd). Naturally, the incarcerated men participating in this acting program are initially mischievous and guarded, resistant to earnest expression. Etienne (Kad Merad), the drama teacher, is, of course, a serious instructor with a big heart, yet he’s dissatisfied with the trajectory of his career and the dissolution of his marriage. Over the course of the film, much of this is challenged and subverted, as the unlikely theatre company stages Waiting for Godot — Etienne reasons that if anyone understands the concept of “waiting,” it would be those serving prison sentences — for enthusiastic crowds of wealthy theatre enthusiasts delighted by the novelty of the production.
To its credit, The Big Hit’s screenplay recognizes that there might be something fundamentally exploitative about these stagings, but while it acknowledges the disparity in experience between the director and his actors, the film refuses to ever consider that Etienne’s motivations could be selfish. In its dramatic closing moments, the film’s sympathies are more clearly outlined, but it never ultimately rejects the inherent glibness of its premise (not unlike the Taviani Brother’s overrated Caesar Must Die, a probable influence). Much tedious comedy is made of these “uncultured” characters wrapping their head around Samuel Beckett’s avant-garde dialogue exchanges, a sort of mean-spirited humor pitched as being in good fun. And that’s the crux of The Big Hit’s problem: it often lets us glimpse a more complicated, edged film, one that might be more appropriate for this loaded material, but such glimpses really only end up underlining how painfully shallow this movie is when taken in full.
Published as part of Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2021 — Dispatch 1.