Once the wunderkind of French film, his star shooting to the top thanks to Dobermann, director Jan Kounen has spent the past several years seemingly wandering in the universe, waylaid by a fixation with shamanistic spirituality that may well be good for his soul but led directly to his making the financially disastrous psychedelic western Blueberry. Career detoured or not, however, it was simply a matter of time before Kounen re-emerged on the scene in some form - the man is simply too obvious and significant a visual talent to be left out of the game forever - and he has done so with the striking, ambitious and hyper kinetic 99 Francs, an adaptation of the same novel of the same name by Frederic Beigbeder. The story of an ad executive in the midst of an existential crisis the material seemed at first blush an odd match for the technicolored spirituality of Kounen but in the final analysis I sincerely doubt this film could have been made by anyone else. A stunning technical tour de force the film is a viciously pointed satire of consumer culture, one that delights in pulling down the curtain between perception and reality and yet never forgets that this is still a film and as such it needs to be entertaining. Which it is. Hugely. Never having read the novel I cannot comment on the accuracy of the adaptation but 99 Francs is, without a doubt, the high point of Kounen's career thus far and will very likely go down as his master work. It is the film that he was seemingly born to make.
Octave seemingly has it all. He is a high powered ad executive and self professed asshole who pulls down huge money to do nothing more than think up ad slogans. It is his job to make you discontent with your life, to make everything you currently own obsolete, to convince you that everything will be so much better for you if only you had that next thing. He is smug and vain and self contented, a perpetual adolescent with an unlimited budget and one vicious drug habit - a simply staggering amount of cocaine is consumed over the course of the film - which would be a problem if not for the aforementioned hefty salary. He is a bastard and he knows it, beyond that he revels in it. His life is an endless party, a world purely driven by appetite and while he is never full he also has the means to never stop eating and so he is content. Or, at least, he seems to be until he makes the tragic mis-step of falling in love - a situation he is completely unequipped to handle in any sort of meaningful way - and realizes too late that maybe being a smug and self centered shit is not the best way to go. His life begins to crumble but what is he to do? Octave has lived this way so long that he is simply unable to change his ways.
Thanks to the very nature of its subject 99 Francs allows - nay, demands - director Kounen to break out every trick in his massive book. It is a lush, hyper kinetic, hyper stylized piece of candy albeit it one with a rotten core. That his characters - every single one of them - know that they're heartless and shallow only makes them worse and Kounen takes great joy in creating a glossy, desirable exterior for them only to gleefully poke holes in it later. The satire is sharp and unmistakable - Kounen is simply furious at the way we are all manipulated by the ad industry - but the message delivered so skillfully, so playfully, that the pill goes down easy. Basically what we have here is an absolute master of the very craft and techniques he is decrying opting to use his powers against themselves and its glorious to behold.
How good is he? Good enough to play out the film with a simply massive level of voice over narration - all in English, which seems an odd choice considering all of the dialog is French, but it works somehow - and an entirely episodic structure, both choices that can utterly destroy a film if done poorly, and turn both choices into enormous strengths. Kounen's visuals are dazzling, his characters perversely charming, his script bold and brash, the comedy hysterical in a pitch black sort of way, and the philosophical underpinnings delivered in a way that never overwhelms, unmistakable as they are.
99 Francs is that rarest of things: a message film that actually entertains. It is as sharp as Fight Club, if not sharper, and packaged as such an enticing, candy coated confection that it goes down eeeeeeeeeeeeasy. It is smart, it is funny, it is a visual marvel anchored by a virtuoso performance by leading man Jean Dujardin. Not only is Kounen back, he has created his masterpiece.