A ponderous true-crime procedural about a murder in France’s poorest commune, Arnaud Desplechin’s mostly lifeless but peripherally compelling “Oh Mercy!” (aka “Roubaix, une lumière”) finds the “My Golden Years” auteur returning to his birthplace to tell a story about a place that few people got to choose, and even fewer get to leave. If the film is a literal homecoming, however, it’s also a striking figurative departure for a filmmaker best known (and most beloved) for intricate, frazzled, and hyper-loquacious comedic dramas like “Kings and Queen” and “A Christmas Tale.” In that sense, this frigid misfire is most readily comparable to Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “The Third Murder,” another flat genre flirtation from an otherwise reliable master.
Based on a killing that occurred in May of 2002, “Oh Mercy!” unfolds like an especially dull episode of “Law & Order: Roubaix.” The film begins on Christmas — not that the script Desplechin co-wrote with Léa Mysius takes much advantage of moving the story to the winter season — and the downtrodden city doesn’t seem to be in the mood for celebrating. The dark, industrial streets are as steeped in crime as they would be on any other night of the year, and insomniac police chief Daoud (“Days of Glory” star Roschdy Zem, stoic and sympathetic in a role that doesn’t allow him to be anything else) is keeping the lights on at the station like always. The infractions that come across his desk that night range from insurance fraud to domestic violence, and he’s determined to get to the bottom of every case, no matter how long it takes.
These opening scenes provide a helpful overview of life in Roubaix, where a concentrated mass of first and second-generation immigrants struggle to stay above the law and within eyesight of the poverty line. “All that’s left is misery,” Daoud remarks at one point, briefly sounding like Desplechin’s mouthpiece. Needless to say, Louis (Antoine Reinartz), the straight arrow new cop in town, has his work cut out for him, though his relative inexperience and overeager attitude are never meaningfully contrasted against Daoud’s wistful, “seen-it-all” zen calm. Together and alone, the two men process a small litany of cases, starting with a missing teenage girl and a light bit of arsonry; the latter doesn’t get any special attention at first, but the fact that Léa Seydoux plays a witness named Claude is a hard-to-miss giveaway that we’ll be coming back to this later.
“Oh Mercy!” is almost an hour old before Daoud realizes that the arson was an attempt to cover fingerprints from a murder scene, and hones in on Claude and her girlfriend Marie (Sara Forestier) as his primary suspects. It’s at this point that Desplechin starts taking his cues from Mosco Boucault’s “Roubaix, commissariat central,” a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the local police that happened to be shooting in the area when the real murder took place. As the film devolves into an exhausting series of interrogation scenes — the Roubaix police separating Claude and Marie and trying to turn them against each other by yelling as loudly as possible — Desplechin allows the verbatim transcripts of the suspects’ testimony to drive the screenplay.
The director has said that he was hoping to “pay tribute to the triviality of their words,” and, well, mission accomplished. Snagged on minor discrepancies between the suspects’ accounts, and powered by the detectives’ insistence on browbeating them with horoscope-generic pop psychology about Claude and Marie’s supposed motivations, these scenes don’t move forward so much as they circle down the drain, the film moving closer and closer to an increasingly irrelevant shade of truth. Forestier and Seydoux are both fantastically desperate as dead end citizens who met each other at a very dangerous time in their lives, but Desplechin fails to make full use of his actors; instead of allowing them to shade in their characters, he pummels the audience into an ambiguous state of forced sympathy.
Daoud insists that the beautiful Claude reacted badly to motherhood — and to the loss of sexual currency that came with it — and Desplechin tries to paint a forgiving portrait of the suspect without ever complicating the detective’s take. The accusation he levels at Marie rings even more hollow, as even under a mess of grimy makeup it’s impossible to buy Forestier as “the ugly one” who blindly submitted to the criminal whims of her gorgeous lover.
Under the surface of these repetitive forensic discussions, a fascinating shadow film takes place in the urgent looks shared between the two women, as they bulge their eyes at each other and wonder how far their partner might go to protect themselves. But while the verbiage is as rapid-fire as Desplechin fans have come to expect, all of the testimonial patter only serves as chaff to obscure the emotional truth of things. Even at the end, “Oh Mercy!” is far too gentle about challenging Daoud’s claim that he always knows who’s guilty and who’s innocent, or that such broad designations are even the least bit useful in a place like this.
Far more compelling are the occasional glimpses into the rest of Roubaix, and into what little we see of Daoud’s personal life. One moment, in which he stands in his coal gray living room and stares at a sunny painting of his native Algeria, reveals a man haunted by his childhood home, cut off from his country, and unsure of his adopted place in the world. That insecurity is absent from his character for the rest of the film, and it leaves a void that Desplechin only bothers to fill in ambient dribs and drabs.
Louis comes the closest. He’s castigated for patrolling the streets without explicit permission, and told that his job is only to “maintain order.” By the time “Oh Mercy!” follows the letter of the law to its inevitable conclusion, the only thing it leaves behind is a vague sense that Roubaix’s “order” may not be worth maintaining. Desplechin should feel lucky that he got out of there — it was a mistake for him to ever go back.
“Oh Mercy!” premiered in Competition at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.