The Movie Waffler IFI French Film Festival 2017 Review - ENDANGERED SPECIES | The Movie Waffler

IFI French Film Festival 2017 Review - ENDANGERED SPECIES

endangered species film 2017 review
Three interlocking stories revolving around a young newly-wed and her abusive husband.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Gilles Bourdos

Starring: Alice Isaaz, Vincent Rottiers, Gregory Gadebois, Suzanne Clement, Eric Elmosnino, Alice de Lencquesaing

endangered species film 2017 poster

Few countries can rival France when it comes to an abundance of acting talent, but isn't it odd how rarely you see two or more of its biggest stars appearing in the same film? Maybe all the female French stars fell out while working together on Francois Ozon's 8 Women, and the men are such egomaniacs that they refuse to share top billing with anyone of equal standing. Whatever the reason, it's rare to see a French ensemble drama.

Director Gilles Bourdos' Endangered Species is very much an ensemble drama, of the sort Robert Altman and his protege Alan Rudolph built their reputations on, but as you might expect it lacks an all-star cast. This is of benefit to Bourdos' film however, as the lack of faces recognisable to anyone who doesn't eat, sleep and breathe French language cinema adds an extra layer of reality to the drama.

endangered species film 2017

And what drama! Bourdos does for American writer Richard Bausch what Altman did for Raymond Carver with Short Cuts, taking a selection of his short stories and weaving them into an interlocking narrative.

The fulcrum of the drama is newly-wed couple Josephine (Alice Isaaz) and Tomasz (Vincent Rottiers). After a dreamlike opening in which the just-married pair run through the streets of their mediterranean hometown late at night, she in her wedding gown, he in his tux, the two retire to their hotel room, and reality kicks in as Tomasz reveals his short temper when Josephine refuses to indulge his questioning of why her father hates him so much.

Cut to a year later and Josephine is stockpiling bottles of vodka from her local supermarket and taking trips to the hospital for injuries she assures doctors she acquired by falling off her bike. Josephine's parents, Joseph (Gregory Gadebois) and Edith (Suzanne Clement), who seemingly had their new son-in-law pegged as a bad 'un from the start, attempt to intervene, but Josephine refuses to leave her husband.

Meanwhile, having just received news that his millenial daughter is pregnant with the child of her sexagenarian professor, Vincent (Eric Elmosnino) moves into the apartment next door to Josephine and Tomasz, having been kicked out of his house by his wife. Treated to the sound of Tomasz dishing out nightly beatings to Josephine, the cowardly Vincent wrestles with his reluctance to intervene.

The third plot strand follows sad-sack Anthony (Damien Chapelle), a student whose heart has been broken several times due to his habit of falling for gold-digging Eastern European immigrants. When his mother, Nicole (Brigitte Catillon), is institutionalised after setting fire to her cheating husband's car and suffering a breakdown, Anthony hires pretty Polish cleaner Anna (Pauline Etienne), and once again begins to fall into the same trap.

endangered species film 2017

With its interweaving sub-plots, Endangered Species easily draws comparisons with Altman and Rudolph, but thematically it's closer to the two films of actor turned filmmaker Todd Field. The growing realisation by Josephine's parents that they may have to take extreme measures to help their daughter is reminiscent of the situation faced by Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek in Field's 2001 debut In the Bedroom, while the overarching theme of adults ill-equipped for the obstacles of real life is one shared with Field's second film, 2006's Little Children.

On paper, Endangered Species reads like the sort of premise that could easily fall into overblown melodrama, but in Bourdos' hands it's a film of remarkable nuance and quiet observation. Tomasz is one of the most despicable characters imaginable, but he's far from a cartoon villain, and despite his incessant cruelty, the film garners a degree of sympathy from the audience towards him, while still having us rooting for Joseph, a big bear of a man whose reluctance to bark leads him eventually to bite, to beat the living daylights out of the man tormenting his daughter.

One of the film's most effective scenes comes when Tomasz returns home after a rage-filled drunken night and bumps into Vincent. The two men share a cigarette and we catch a glimpse of the other side of Tomasz, the affable, charming man Josephine fell for, all puppy dog eyes and vulnerability. It feels like the moment Vincent could maybe talk sense into his violent neighbour, but it's never taken.

There are a couple of scenes here that will emotionally break you, but Bourdos never uses cheap gimmicks to tug at the heart-strings, relying on the subtle work of his excellent cast over any explosions of emotion or 'cry now' soundtrack cues. One is a simple close-up of Joseph, stuck in his car waiting for roadworks to clear, listening to his daughter imply over the phone that she's too far gone, that there may be nothing her father can do. Watching Gadebois' face convey a rainbow of emotions, from disappointment to guilt to rage, is tough but rewarding.

endangered species film 2017

Later, having followed Vincent's advice to meet with his social worker ex-wife, Marie (Agathe Dronne), Josephine receives a call from an angry Tomasz. Isaaz plays this in an infuriating but understandable manner, as Josephine succumbs to her husband's pleas to return home, despite the best efforts of Marie to convince her otherwise. Anyone who fails to understand why abused women find it so hard to leave their abusers will find a blunt answer here.

If I have a complaint about Bourdos' film it's that the sub-plot involving Anthony and his mother doesn't dovetail as easily with the other two strands as it should, and this part of the narrative can at times feel like a distraction from the more compelling material elsewhere. It's a minor nitpick however, as this is a gripping ensemble drama that tackles a timely social issue in a nuanced manner, never straying into the movie of the week path its subject could so easily have diverted it down.