Back in 1960's France, masked wrestling was not a kitsch, novelty sport with a cult following -- it was serious business. According to the accepted narrative, it was not only a spectacle of brutality, but a powerful assertion of good triumphing over evil. In each match, a white-masked wrestler fought it out with a black-masked one, and ultimately emerged victorious. I don't think I need to elaborate on the symbolism here.
And so, using this profession, with clear-cut versions of good and bad, as a backdrop for a film-noir, a genre which thrives on blurring the lines between the two opposing forces, is the first of many clever, inspired decisions director David Perrault
makes in his film Our Heroes Are Dead Tonight
(Nos Héros Sont Mort Ce Soir
). By combining elements of classic noir and boxing/wrestling pictures from the fifties and adding a healthy dose of distinctly French existential dread, post-colonial guilt and New Wave homage, Perrault crafts a winning debut that celebrates great films of yesteryear, while still feeling unique and vital in its own right.
The plot concerns a man, Victor who meets up with his friend Simon after coming back to Paris from the French foreign legion, at the time knee-deep in Algerian occupation gone-wrong. Simon, a pessimistic, unambitious and mostly unhappy man who pays the bills playing the "good" wrestler in low-rent matches gets Victor a job in the ring donning the black mask. However, after the military occupation in Algeria, Victor is tired of playing the bad guy.
Naturally, there will be a fix-gone wrong, a powerful, corrupt wrestling manager (who openly wishes he was James Cagney) and a number of lessons learned too late. But again, this is not a film that simply goes through the narrative motions to construct a collage of influence. Perrault directs with force and vitality, especially during the dramatic and brutal wrestling scenes, which will certainly captivate even those who couldn't care less about directors like Howard Hawks or Robert Wise.
Perrault skillfully balances the power-struggles, soul-searching, romances and shady corruption up until the climax, which feels a bit abrupt, and perhaps not as operatic or hard-hitting as it might have, but Perrault handles everything leading up to it with such a sure hand that the final coda still carries the haunting power of the best movies in the genre.
For me, the main thing that kept the film from being a total home run was the black-and-white HD cinematography. I should first clarify -- the film looks gorgeous. The shots are elegantly composed, the wrestling ring is appropriately moody and the blacks and whites in every image are crisp and well-defined. It was perhaps the best that black-and-white HD can look. And yet, for this type of story, I sorely missed the texture of celluloid. The grain and grit that I associate with movies from the era. The rough edges. The way that smoke from a cigarette can take over an entire shot. The intense definition here, which honestly looked even sharper than reality, felt completely removed from the time period which the film attempts to evoke.
I imagine the choice had more to do with budget than anything else, and so, it's not a point to really begrudge. Indeed, one of the greatest pleasures of Our Heroes Are Dead Tonight
is witnessing the beginnings of an extremely talented young director with a passion for cinema, and knowing that he will undoubtedly soon do even greater things.
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