Around about this time last year in the Un Certain Regard sidebar of Cannes we were discovering eventual winner Kornél Mundruczó‘s “White God” which features incarcerated, maltreated dogs taking revenge on their human captors. So a little deja vu was inevitable when at a key moment in Laurent Larivière‘s debut feature “I Am A Soldier” a character gets mauled to unconsciousness by a riled-up German Shepherd escaped from its joyless cage. But while canine captivity is definitely a part of Larivière’s debut film, his focus is resolutely on the human characters, the sordid decisions they make in order to keep their heads above water in a drowning economy, and the relationships that crumble and coalesce in that crucible. It is narrow in scope, solid in execution but a little too familiar and too unfocused to take to heart.
It does however boast a strong, un-self-pitying performance from model/TV-presenter-turned-actress Louise Bourgoin (from Luc Besson‘s “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec“) who convincingly acts the part of the ordinary young woman who finds herself at the thin end of poverty’s wedge, even if her luminous good looks and inescapably superior bone structure do make the relentless unglamor of her situation a tiny bit hard to swallow at times. She plays Sandrine, who at the film’s beginning is checking through the snag list in the dingy apartment she cannot afford to keep and arguing with the disinterested realtor about the return of her deposit. With nowhere to go but back to her mother’s in her small hometown, but unable initially to admit to the failure of her move away, she faces further disappointments there. Her sister, Audrey has beaten her to the moving-home punch: she, her husband and child are all three living in Sandrine’s old room while her husband has a slow-acting nervous breakdown trying to build a family house on a small plot of land nearby, all by himself. In the midst of all this financial hardship, Sandrine’s mother (an excellent Anne Benoit, making much more of her role than is written) does her best to be supportive but is hardly capable of making ends meet for herself.
As a result she relies somewhat on her brother Henri (veteran Jean-Hugues Anglade), who runs dog kennels and who agrees to take on Sandrine as an employee. At the kennels, Sandrine discovers not only that Henri is involved in very illegal dog smuggling operations, but that she herself has an odd aptitude for the unsentimental, unpleasant work. But the demi monde of the black market dog trade, which is the film’s best bid for originality, is not examined in as much depth as we might have hoped, with Larivière instead opting to tack on a rather unnecessary love subplot (between Sandrine and Henri’s vet associate), which does not just sell out some of the hard-nosed vibe of the story, it also distracts from the more interesting themes about family and the limits of one’s duty to one’s own kin. Because Henri, so generous and family-oriented toward his sister at home, turns out to be a right bastard, if his involvement in a revolting practice whereby puppies are bought by the kilo, or by the crate, off trucks idling beneath underpasses at night, had not already signalled that fact. And oddly enough, Larivière never really mines this territory for its obviously emotive potential: we hardly ever see the dogs, and get the impression he is as uninterested in them as living creatures as Sandrine is. It’s telling that her eventual rejection of Henri and this way of life comes not from dawning conscience but from a close call with the police.
Cinematographer David Chizallet (who’s been all over this Cannes, also having shot “The Anarchists” and “Mustang“) is on slightly uneven form here, often lapsing into blandness, but occasionally achieving a rather brilliant shot, such as the prowling car headlights circling restlessly like hungry animals while they await the arrival of a truck from Eastern Europe. And Larivière seems to have saved his most expressive directorial flourishes and shot design for a few impressive sequences, while being happy to see the rest of the film just get the job done. Early on a scene evoking Sandrine’s isolation by having her end up alone in frame as passersby, seemingly accidentally, all clear the area simultaneously, is a striking moment that set up an expectation of visual inventiveness that the rest of the film did not really fulfill.
But the greatest issue with “I am a Soldier” (rather nonsensically named for a line in a great Johnny Hallyday version of “Quand Revient La Nuit” that plays unexpectedly at a key moment) is that this tale of hot dogs and cold hearts cannot settle on what it wants to be: social expose, domestic drama, love story or low-key thriller. And so it ends up floundering somewhere in the midlands between all these–a bit of a mongrel, but a merit-worthy bid for thespian credibility from its committed star at least. [B-]