The first thing you need to accept about “Rock’n’Roll” — an endearingly bizarre showbiz satire in which actor and filmmaker Guillaume Canet (“Tell No One”) plays a hyper-neurotic version of himself who suffers one of the worst mid-life crises since “8 1/2” — is that the movie never asks you to feel sorry for the guy who goes home to Marion Cotillard. On the contrary, Canet’s new comedy (his first outing behind the camera since his English-language debut flopped in 2013) is a bruised, self-deprecating spectacle that finds the French celebrity mocking himself for the fragility of his own ego.
Yes, the movie argues that stars might sense their expiration dates approaching more acutely than the rest of us, and yes, it dwells on how difficult it is to know that everyone is watching you and judging you and measuring you against your former self. Still, “Rock’n’Roll” is able to circumvent the otherwise toxic combination of privilege and self-pity (and inside jokes about the French film industry) because Canet makes his meltdown into a hyper-literal expression of a universal fact: Famous actors or not, we all need to learn how to play new roles in our lives.
It would be extremely difficult to describe how “Rock’n’Roll” ends, but it starts like a jaunty movie about the magical bubble of moviemaking, the opening long-take evoking everything from “Day for Night” to “Irma Vep” as it follows a young PA as she races around the set of Canet’s (fake) new film. The handsome 42-year-old actor, who looks like a French Patrick Dempsey with a little bit less soap opera shine, has been cast as a middle-aged priest in this one, but it’s clear that he still fancies himself as a romantic lead. Never mind the fact that model-turned-actress Camille Rowe is playing his daughter, Canet still flirts with her like she’s supposed to be flattered by the attention. Needless to say, he gets the rudest of awakenings when his nubile co-star tells him that he’s no longer “rock’n’roll,” that he’s plummeted down the list of fuckable movie stars. That’s enough to knock the guy off his axis. Suddenly, it seems like everyone on set is calling him “Mr. Cotillard.”
And so begins a downward spiral into the bottomless sewers of male insecurity, which begins with Canet indulging in all of the usual rituals of shameless self-preservation (e.g. he dyes his hair an obvious shade of black and wears way too much leather) and eventually leads to measures so extreme that they stretch into surrealism. In the meantime, Canet’s ego is further wounded by the fact that his longtime girlfriend is at the top of her game. This movie might lean more towards bemused chuckles than belly laughs, but there’s no keeping a straight face during the scene when Cotillard returns home with her latest César Award — after Canet has lost in all of his categories — and promptly uses the trophy to prop up their tilted coffee table.
Alas, Cotillard spends most of the film preparing for a Xavier Dolan shoot in Canada, the method actress speaking in an unintelligible Quebecois dialect that makes our hero feel like he’s suffered a stroke. This joke is hugely overplayed, especially for those of us who don’t speak any kind of French, but it’s enjoyable to watch Cotillard make fun of her penchant for playing accented or disabled roles, and the gag helps prepare viewers for the wackier twists to come.
Dolan himself never shows up, but “Rock’n’Roll” is definitely geared towards an audience who hopes that he might. Cotillard might be an international star, but Canet is still a rather local phenomenon, and his self-effacing new film never pretends otherwise — despite the universal matter of its mid-life crisis, many of the movie’s gags require a passing familiarity with French celebrities. Johnny Hallyday drops by for a lengthy cameo that will mean next to nothing for those who don’t know his work or reputation (look him up, he’s great). But Canet doesn’t have Brad Pitt on speed dial, only his girlfriend does, and one of the most interesting things about this satire is that it knows we’d rather be watching one about Cotillard. Canet, of course, folds that fact right into his network of neuroses; as the film goes on, you can practically feel him trying to fight for our attention, to justify spending two hours with him when his mega-famous girlfriend is right off-camera.
And Canet isn’t afraid to get a little desperate. Or a lot desperate, for that matter. “Rock’n’Roll” is far too thin to sustain its epic running time, but it only grows more compelling as Canet goes off the deep end. The last 30 minutes or so, during which our tragicomic hero starts making the kind of aesthetic adjustments that cannot be unmade, veers towards Cronenbergian body horror and never looks back. It builds to a gleefully nauseating coda that needs to be seen in order to be believed, and even then still seems like a bad dream. Then again, this movie only works because Canet is so unafraid of how he might be perceived. The whole thing might be very tongue in cheek, but there’s never any doubt that he’s peeling off a layer of his skin in full view of a paying public. It’s fascinating to watch, even if it’s more frightening than funny.
Canet may never be rock’n’roll again, but he’s got real potential to be something of a punk.
“Rock’n’Roll played in the Spotlight Narrative section of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.