Wednesday, January 15, 1997

French Film Noir

Director-screenwriter Jacques Audiard's "Un Héros Très Discret" is white hot satire as well as riveting entertainment.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 15, 1997 at 12:00 AM

It's well known that the film noir is one of America's most popular cinematic exports. What might not be so familiar to movie buffs is how noir has singly become an emblem for the disintegration of social norms and assumptions, even in the face of efforts to revive it.

A Self-Made Hero (Un Héros Très Discret in French) is director-screenwriter Jacques Audiard's wry attempt to call into question the creation and packaging of French history. It's also brilliant moviemaking. To help his cause, Audiard has enlisted rad filmmaker Mathieu Kassovitz, director of the superb La Haine, to play the role of impostor Albert Dehousse. Able co-conspirators thicken the stew, as handsome Kassovitz gives a smartly understated performance as a charming liar lodged in the north of France during the height of World War II.

At 12, young Albert is cruelly confronted by a childhood friend who tells him that his father is not the war hero his family believes him to be. The ambiguities jarred by this experience lead Albert to become a trickster who plays on the elusiveness of truth at all times. A war widow's only child, Albert is overlooked as a possible draftee when the Germans enter Lambersart in 1940, but eventually shapes himself into a renowned figure all the same.

A Self-Made Hero is white-hot satire as well as riveting entertainment, with Audiard switching from the cramped narrative of mostly medium and close-up shots to stock footage of the war effort and bogus interview segments with historical figures who "knew" Dehousse well. It moves at a steady, quicksilver pace over Dehousse's rise through the ranks, and Audiard's dialogue, written with Alain Le Henry, drives with all the vigor of Bogart and Bacall's keen exchanges during noir's heyday.

Audiard uses the noir atmosphere sparsely, for both humor and effect. For those who can deal with the brisk but sly dialogue in English subtitles, A Self-Made Hero will deliver, being unsettling and provocative, archly critical and deeply funny all at the same time.

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