As one of the Cannes Film Festival’s favorite sons, Arnaud Desplechin has been a fixture on the Croisette for more than 20 years.
The director has had six films play in competition, and several others in sidebars. He served on the jury in 2016 and opened the festival with 2017’s “Ismael’s Ghosts.”
For longtime festival-goers, the prospect of another year in Cannes means another chance to catch up with this idiosyncratic auteur, whose work has always been defined by its looseness, as well as its ramshackle assembly of old-time film techniques, clipped pace and intellectual digressions.
Compared to all that has preceded it, “Oh Mercy,” which premiered in Cannes on Wednesday, is his most unconventional film to date – precisely because it feels so very conventional.
A straight-down-the-line police procedural about a group of cops trying to get to the bottom of a grisly crime, the film feels more like a TV pilot than anything else, centering on an engaging and charismatic lead as he works out his latest case.
French star Roschdy Zem (“Days of Glory”) anchors the film as Captain Daoud, an Algerian transplant making his home in France’s working-class northern city of Roubaix (where Desplechin sets most of his films, as experienced Cannes-heads are no doubt aware).
For the first half, we follow the solemn but soft-spoken inspector as he works through a number of cases, all of them offering a window onto this somber city-in-decline, but the film’s focus hones in on a specific murder case as the narrative unfolds.
In an interesting move, the perpetrators are never in doubt; when investing the murder of an 80-year-old woman, the intuitive Daoud quickly pins the blame on her neighbors, a junkie couple played by Léa Seydoux and Sara Forestier. So instead of trying to figure out the culprits, the cops look to piece together the act itself – bringing the two women in and interrogating them separately and then together.
“Oh Mercy” opens with a series of title cards noting that all that will follow is true – indeed, Desplechin based his film on a 2002 documentary, and worked the (real) women’s direct interrogation transcripts into his script. Of course, by casting two well-known actresses as characters whose guilt the film never questions, Desplechin signals his interest in something more than straight-ahead detective inquiry.
Instead, he uses the dual interrogations as a dissection of relationship power dynamics, tracking the shifting loyalties of two women who first put up a unified front that soon gives way as each tries to secure the best terms possible for themselves. In that sense, the film uses the police procedural structure as platform to explore a real-time relationship breakdown.
It’s an interesting feint on Desplechin’s part, but in the end the idea actually reinforces the procedural form, rather than subverting it. We’re left with a particularly interesting case that comes to its natural resolution, anchored by a sympathetic inspector we could happily see again – in short, it would make a very good pilot.
Of course, it probably isn’t one. I don’t think a filmmaker as wiry and unpredictable as Desplechin is looking to spend more time in the Captain Daoud-iverse, so what’s the point of begrudging him this diverting, if rather minor-key, change of pace? After all, as good Cannes-heads know, he’ll be back with something else soon enough.