Credit: Cannes Film Festival
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film

Vincent Must Die — Stéphan Castang [Cannes ’23 Review]

May 26, 2023

Karim Leklou has a fascinating face, a seemingly unremarkable assemblage of features that acts like a blank slate; it’s a Kuleshov-effect visage. Director Clément Cogitore put this phenomenon to great use in last year’s Sons of Ramses, an as-yet-undistributed sorta-thriller that cast Leklou as a fake medium who cons people out of money in exchange for pretending to communicate with their deceased loved ones. It’s remarkably easy to project onto Leklou; his doughy, slightly saggy features and hangdog eyes seem to invite pity and commiseration. He’s once again cast to excellent effect in Stéphan Castang’s Vincent Must Die, a pitch-black comedy that gradually transforms into an apocalyptic horror film about mankind’s capacity for violence. 

True to the film’s title, Vincent awakes one day to find that random people wish to do him extreme bodily harm. An intern at his office drone job smashes a computer keyboard across his head. Another colleague stabs Vincent in the hand and wrist with a pin. Of course, the office’s HR rep not so subtly suggests that Vincent probably did something to antagonize his attackers and that he should simply work from home for his own safety. But it’s not just the people he is tangentially connected to; completely anonymous strangers try to attack him, too. Dejected from a date gone bad, Vincent slinks back to his apartment just in time for his neighbor’s kids — a pair of polite, friendly pre-teens — to suddenly attack. When he defends himself against the children, his neighbors gang up on him and threaten to call the police. This guy just can’t catch a break.

Eventually, Vincent decides to leave the city and head for his family’s secluded farm. He learns a few things along the way when he meets an unhoused person outside of a fast-food place. Desperately hungry, the man exchanges information for some food. What’s happening to Vincent happened to him, too. The man tells Vincent to avoid eye contact at all costs, which seems to trigger potential assailants, and suggests getting a dog, as they can somehow sense when an attack is imminent. Furthermore, there’s a website with an active message board full of people experiencing this same phenomenon, each sharing their own stories about friends and family suddenly becoming bloodthirsty maniacs. Seeking refuge in the deserted farm house, Vincent tries to avoid people, but keeps being forced into conversations; an old childhood friend stops by to say hello, while a backed-up septic tank leads to a visit from an elderly neighbor. Both encounters lead to violence. It’s harder to disappear from society than one might imagine. 

There’s a curious conservative undercurrent here (presumably unintended by the filmmakers) about the average white male being besieged by all sides: through no fault of his own, Vincent is driven from his home, disenfranchised, and literally forced to cower under threat of potential harm, and that the film would feel radically different with a person of color and/or a woman as the protagonist perhaps speaks to the malleability of its premise. Unintentional parallels to contemporary white male grievances aside, the film thankfully casts this subtext off once it expands in scope. What was once isolated to a few poor, unfortunate souls escalates into a much larger scaled event — call it a pseudo-apocalypse. Vincent eventually meets Margaux (Vimala Pons), a free-spirited waitress who believes his unbelievable story, and the duo strike up a kind of romance. Unfortunately, either one of them could attack the other at any moment, which proves a real roadblock to intimacy. Vincent’s father eventually joins them, and what began as an oddball comedy of errors becomes full-on survival horror. 

Castang has a keen sense of building tension, aided immeasurably by Leklou’s sad-sack performance. This unremarkable everyman becomes a free-floating metaphor for the incoherent, unexpected rage that permeates the world, a hostage to forces beyond control or even understanding. For thrillseekers, there are a couple of outstanding suspense sequences here, including a melee in a traffic jam that devolves into startling brutality. There are also a few parallels here to Ulrich Köhler’s 2018 film In My Room, another quirky character study that takes an outlandish sci-fi conceit — in this case a ‘last man on earth’ scenario — and grounds it, with an attention to quotidian detail that infuses the proceedings with just enough realism. But where Köhler’s film is opaque enough to invite different readings, Castang’s seems content in the end to simply ratchet up the thrills. Still, both suggest that there’s still some life left in these tropes, which have otherwise been run into the ground after years of tired zombie apocalypse cheapies.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.