While Cannes had no shortage of high-profile titles to choose from, sometimes the most exciting thing about hitting the Croisette is discovering something flying under the radar. And unlike the auteur and star-driven movies, the push and pull over going to see something unknown versus eating, writing or catching up on a couple of hours of valuable sleep, can come down to the images. And wisely, the folks behind “Grigris” put their greatest asset — dancer and lead actor Souleymane Démé — front and center on the press material. His lean muscular form and captivating face are a draw, and the crisply colored, expertly composed images from the movie, drew us into sitting down for this Cannes competition entry, but unfortunately, it didn’t wind up being the hidden jewel we were hoping for.
To be certain though, it got off on the right foot, pun firmly intended. Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun wastes no time in highlighting the talents of Démé, a real life dancer with a crippled left leg, who certainly shows no sign of being disabled. He holds court on a dancefloor in a bar, with an electrifying dance routine that would be impressive even for someone with two working legs. He’s rail thin, but it makes his limbs all the more angular, as they shoot out in all directions, moving furiously to the beat, working up the crowd into a frenzy. This is our introduction to Grigris, an earnest young man who seems poised for greater things, but must first find a way out of his modest African village. And this is where “Grigris” loses focus of the very element that makes it special.
While we weren’t looking for “Magic Grigris,” Démé is undoubtedly a mesmerizing performer — his dancing scenes are hugely entertaining — which makes the decision to stick him in an otherwise unengaging thriller plot somewhat puzzling. In short, thanks to some pressing financial needs, Grigris gets drawn into the world of petrol smuggling, but when he gets caught with his hand in the till, so to speak, his dangerous criminal boss Moussa (Cyril Gueï) gives him 48 hours to make things right…or else… And with the addition of Mimi (Anaïs Monory), your standard hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold romantic interest, that is essentially the entire story that is given a far too long one hour and forty minutes to play out. Haroun is never in any hurry to get the narrative moving anywhere, which is not necessarily a problem, except when there is very little story to advance in the first place. And it doesn’t help that Grigris mostly boils inwardly, and though Démé is a fascinating performer, the arc his character undergoes is ultimately fairly limited.
But as we said, the film is often beautiful to look out. From the swampy, sweat-slicked interiors of the nightclub scenes, the arid expanses of the more rural locations, Haroun frames almost everything with a sharp eye, easily taking viewers into a milieu that will be foreign to many. However, even the cinematography by Antoine Heberle can’t take away from the stagy acting at times, and again, the rote nature of the screenplay, which spends a lot of time putting everything in place for a third act that brings it all together, although in a manner few will find surprising. Even a late, arguably feminist shift in the climax of the story is too little and almost too laughably presented to carry much resonance, and still leaves things unintentionally unresolved, even as the narrative tries to draw to a close.
“Grigris” is the unusual movie that takes a lead’s obvious talents, and curiously backgrounds them, hoping for their charisma to carry over to more traditional cinematic purposes. Unfortunately, Haroun can’t quite turn Démé from a dancer into a convincing leading man, and certainly not when given little to work with. “Grigris” measures out its story in spacious doses, hoping to build into something of a morality tale, but there is little learned except that entering a criminal enterprise and trying to outsmart the criminals, probably isn’t a great idea. A fleeting message about the strength of community bonding people closer than the self-interest driven life in the big city floats by, but it’s another simple lesson in a film could use more layers. Despite the color, “Grigris” is just too monochrome. [C]