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IFI French Film Festival 2019 Review - Oh Mercy!

oh mercy review
A veteran police captain investigates the murder of an elderly woman.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Arnaud Desplechin

Starring: Roschdy Zem, LÊa Seydoux, Sara Forestier, Antoine Reinartz

oh mercy poster




The police procedural (or 'policier' as the French call it) isn't a genre you readily associate with Arnaud Desplechin, a filmmaker best known for introspective dramas, usually starring Mathieu Amalric as a surrogate for the director. Desplechin was inspired to make his procedural thriller Oh Mercy! by a 2008 documentary whose subject was a shocking crime that took place in his hometown of Roubaix, a socially deprived city on the Belgian border.

oh mercy review


Desplechin's film portrays his birthplace in a far from positive light. Louis (Antoine Reinartz), a rookie police detective newly assigned to the city, describes Roubaix in letters to his mother (presented as voiceover) in a similar manner to how Travis Bickle described '70s New York. The difference is Louis appears to revel in the idea of living in a city where violence lurks in the shadows, to a worrying degree for someone whose job is to keep the peace.

[ READ MORE: IFI French Film Festival 2019 Review - Lullaby ]

Louis' precinct captain is Yakoub (Roschdy Zem), an Algerian immigrant who knows the city inside out, with members of his own family, including an imprisoned nephew who refuses to accept his uncle's visits, on the other side of the law. Over the years Yakoub has developed an innate ability to sniff out guilt, which we initially see demonstrated when he calls the bluff of a man who set his own car on fire in a crude attempt at an insurance scam.

oh mercy review


Yakoub's well developed sixth sense is pinged once again when the strangled body of an elderly woman is found in her bed. He immediately suspects the two young women who live next door to the victim, single mother Claude (LÊa Seydoux) and her young friend Marie (Sara Forestier). Separating Claude and Marie, Yakoub begins the lengthy process of grilling both women for the truth.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Them That Follow ]

Structurally, Oh Mercy! has far more in common with a TV pilot than a feature film, setting up its characters for what feels like a continuing series of adventures rather than giving them a defined and finite arc. The portrayal of Louis is particularly puzzling, as his character is presented in a way that suggests he will play the role of the film's protagonist (he's afforded the only voiceover in the film), yet he's pushed aside as Yakoub takes centre stage. The first half of the movie takes time to establish its setting, which it does very well, nailing the atmosphere of a tough working class town. We see Yakoub and his detectives drawn into various cases, such as the disappearance of a teenage girl and the sexual assault of another in a subway station, before the movie settles down on Yakoub's questioning of Claude and Marie.

oh mercy review


It's at this point that the movie changes path, crossing into territory that lies somewhere between In Cold Blood and an episode of Law and Order. Seydoux and particularly Forestier are excellent as the suspects in a seemingly meaningless and motiveless murder, and Zem is genuinely intimidating as their interrogator. But it all feels like something we could watch any weeknight on TV, just a little more polished. If you told me Oh Mercy! was the pilot for the sort of prestige European crime dramas that draw in crowds on BBC4, I'd believe you. And if it was, I might even stick around for a few episodes, chiefly because Zem is such a compelling presence, a sort of French-Arabic George C Scott who fills the frame no matter what distance you shoot him from. But for a night at the movies it all feels a little too open ended.

A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.




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