‘Beating Hearts’ Review: Gilles Lellouche’s Epic Outlaw Love Story Is A Crowd-Pleasing French Hit – Cannes Film Festival

‘Beating Hearts’ Review: Gilles Lellouche’s Epic Outlaw Love Story Is A Crowd-Pleasing French Hit – Cannes Film Festival

Seemingly from out of nowhere, actor turned director Gilles Lellouche throws a Molotov Flanby into the Competition with only his second feature, a terrific and unexpectedly potent piece of genre filmmaking that could, to avoid spoilers, be described as a kind of mash-up of Badlands and La Haine, as if directed by Walter Hill. Throw in a little Eurocrime, from the likes of Fernando Di Leo and late-period Jean-Pierre Melville, and you’re getting close to what Lellouche has achieved here, a romantic banlieue opera that delivers all the gritty, vicarious thrills of the now-standard post-Goodfellas gangster movie but also burrows into issues of class and gender in refreshingly unpredictable ways.

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It arrives as a movie seemingly made by committee, since the film is based on an Irish novel — Jackie Love Johnser OK? By Neville Thompson — and features contributions by fellow filmmakers Ahmed Hamidi and Audrey Diwan. It quickly transpires that this is a good thing, since Beating Hearts is a film that constantly interrogates itself, pulling back from cliché to create a movie that’s not so much a riff on West Side Story as The Shangri-las’ 1964 bubblegum hit “The Leader of the Pack” come to life. (Get the picture?). What’s all the more surprising is that Lellouche’s debut, Sink or Swim (2019), was an out-and-out comedy, a Gallic kind of Dodgeball about a ragtag all-male synchronized swimming team, that brought him 10 César nominations. If that’s the precedent, there’s no reason why Lellouche and co shouldn’t just be given all next year’s Césars right now.

It’s a film of three parts: an 80-minute prologue, a 60-minute middle, and a 25-minute ending, an ungainly structure that Lellouche somehow manages to balance quite deftly. It begins in the mid-’90s, and gang-leader Clotaire (Francois Civil) is gearing up for fight, leading a flotilla of heavily armed thugs in menacing black cars. A woman, Jacky (Adéle Exarchopolous), calls his mobile from a phone box, but Clotaire ignores the call. Instead, he goes ahead with the mission, instructing his brother Kiki to stay in the car. Kiki disobeys and pays with his life: the enemy is waiting for them, and a massacre ensues.

Game over? No. Taking a leaf from Tarantino’s revisionist-history handbook, Lellouche winds back ten years. Clotaire is now a teenager (Malik Frikah), the son of an oil-refinery worker who has so many kids, the neighbors think it’s a benefit scam (“Our kids are children of love,” says dad, causing Clotaire to guffaw with disgust). Jackie (Mallory Wanecque), meanwhile, lives with her single father (Alain Chabat) and is about to start at a local state school, having been expelled for insolence from the prestigious Fontaine academy. On her first day, she encounters Clotaire and his mates, who hang around outside the school gates, insulting the pupils. He tries it with Jacky, ragging on her preppy looks, but she stands up to him — and Clotaire is smitten.

Clotaire clocks the badge she’s wearing, The Cure singer Robert Smith, so he shoplifts a copy of the band’s second album, “17 Seconds”, only to find she already has it. This Benedick and Beatrice routine continues until a school prom, where Clotaire fights off three attackers. Jacky falls in love with his blood-stained face and dreams up an interpretive dance to The Cure’s 1980 goth-pop hit “A Forest”.

So begins an unlikely love affair. Jacky commits to her studies, but Clotaire thinks that education is “for dipshits with no imagination”. They spend all their time together, but what starts as petty pilfering — Clotaire steals two boxes of Flanby, Jacky’s favorite dessert — becomes more serious after he and his best friend Lionel steal a shipment of hash. This brings them to the attention of local crime boss La Brosse (Benoît Poelvoorde), who is impressed by Clotaire’s tenacity. Under the guise of a hotelier, hosting fake wedding receptions, La Brosse masterminds a string of armed robberies, one of which goes horribly wrong when a security guard is shot and killed. Clotaire takes the fall, expecting some reward for his silence. Ten years pass, however, and he returns to a very different world: La Brosse’s gang snubs him, and, more importantly, Jacky is now married.

Will they get back together? And should they, given the artfully directed bloodbath we saw at the beginning? Lellouche keeps us guessing in the brutal second act, where, like Point Blank’s Walker, Clotaire embarks on a one-man crusade to get back what he’s owed. Jacky, meanwhile, has simply given up and is resigned to life with Jeffrey (Vincent Lacoste), a dull area manager who falls for her surly charm after firing her from a hire-car company. Jeffrey likes things orderly, but Jacky does not. “It’s chaos in my head,” she says. “I like things unresolved.” Speaking of which, Jeffrey is not best pleased to find out about Clotaire, whom Jacky has never mentioned in all their time together…

Though it borders on high camp (one can easily imagine what Baz Luhrmann might have done with this material), Beating Hearts keeps things real, a male-friendly felladrama of the kind that Bradley Cooper really should consider making. Key to its appeal are the four leads, the two generations/iterations of Clotaire and Jacky, whose chemistry survives the ten-year-transition, but the supporting players are excellent too (notably the superb Poelvoorde), creating a rich texture that sustains the film through its marathon running time.

The film loses some steam in its final furlong, which Jon Brion’s epic score is able to paper over, but Lellouche has created something special here. Whether such a flagrantly commercial movie merits a place in Competition is another conversation entirely, but, in France at least, it will be a crowd-pleasing hit, and it fully deserves every ounce of the good will that will surely come to it.