The name Thomas Bidegain may not be particularly familiar, but he might be the best-known screenwriter in the French film industry, and international audiences are likely familiar with his collaborations with Jacques Audiard on “A Prophet,” “Rust & Bone” and the director’s latest film “Dheepan.” But he’s ranked up big credits beyond that, too, on films including Joachim Lafosse‘s “Our Children,” Bertrand Bonello‘s “Saint Laurent,” and the biggest Gallic hit of last year, “The Bélier Family.”
Whether or not it was their intention at first, many screenwriters end up moving into directing, and Bidegain is no exception with his first feature, “Les Cowboys.” With some surface similarities to his work with Audiard while ploughing its own furrow, it’s an ambitious first movie for a filmmaker, and one that ultimately bites off rather more than it can chew.
The film opens at a country-and-western party in rural France in 1994, as ten-gallon-hat sporting businessman, Alain (Francois Damiens), sings a standard and line-dances with his daughter, Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), watched by wife Nicole (Agathe Dronne) and young son, Kid (Maxim Driesen). But the moment of happiness is soon punctured: by the end of the day, Kelly has vanished without a word, and the hours soon turn to days.
Distraught and furious at the police’s complacency, Alain soon learns that his daughter had a secret boyfriend, Ahmed, a Muslim, who may have been radicalized. After a near-miss, Alain spends years following the faint hints of evidence of Kelly and Ahmed around Europe, destroying his marriage, and perhaps his sanity, in the process. Often dragging the now-grown Kid (Finnegan Oldfield) along in a quest that will span decades, and eventually reach all the way to Pakistan, and an enigmatic American headhunter (John C. Reilly).
With Islamism in French headlines once again after the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, and stories in the UK of radicalized teens heading to Syria to join ISIS, it’s undoubtedly topical stuff, and Bidegain’s approach to the war on terror is an intriguing one. If the title wasn’t enough of a giveaway, it soon becomes clear that he’s riffing on John Ford‘s classic “The Searchers” — a bigoted man and his relative head on a desperate quest to find a family member who’s been “captured” by another culture.
It’s ambitious footsteps to be walking in, but Bidegain certainly displays confidence as a helmer. There’s impressive scope and scale to the picture, and the images of cinematographer Arnaud Potier are beautiful. Bidegain isn’t yet as visually inventive as Audiard, but there’s an impressive classicism to his approach that’s unusual for a first-time director.
It’s a shame, though, given his background as a writer, that it’s the story and script where the film falls down in a big way. Beginning with the opening, which feels like ten solid minutes of line dancing footage, there’s an indulgence throughout, with scenes frequently feeling over-extended, repetitive or unnecessary — you could happily trim a good twenty minutes from the film and make it feel much more satisfying.
Even then, though, you’d be faced with problems that would be harder to fix. Damiens is physically imposing and certainly committed, but he’s such a one-note furious asshole from the off, even before his life self-destructs, that it’s hard to engage much with his quest. The relative nuance of John Wayne in “The Searchers” is much missed here, and you’re left feeling that if you were Alain’s daughter, you’d probably run away, too.
Kid takes the center stage in the second half, which would be a welcome respite, given the relentlessly shouty nature of Alain, if the character wasn’t such a blank. Oldfield appears to be a talented actor, but he’s not given much to play with. As the film goes on (particularly as it starts to clumsily integrate real-life events, like 9/11 and the Madrid bombings, into the narrative), it also becomes increasingly contrived, with some plot elements introduced late on that feel extraneous at best and soapy at worst (Reilly’s character is one of the better ones, and he gives the most engaging performance in the film).
As the story moves to Pakistan, it becomes clearer than ever what the film’s biggest issue is: its viewpoint is muddled and murky. Subject matter like this was always going to be provocative, but we don’t spend enough time with Kelly to see why she made the decisions she made, and there’s a lazy other-ing to the way it engages with the war on terror: it pays lip service to the idea that there might conceivably be some Pakistanis who don’t want to blow things up, but from Kelly’s terrorist husband to lynch mobs, the film borders on Islamophobia for much of the second half.
Bidegain certainly scores points for ambition with his first film, and in scenes or snippets (including a deft narrative twist midway through that briefly pulled me back in just when I was about to check out), you can see what he was aiming for. Unfortunately, by the time it’s done, “Les Cowboys” feels like a missed opportunity. [C-]