Dir. - Géla Babluani
Sean starts another one:
As far as first efforts go Géla Babluani’s 13 Tzameti doesn’t fail to impress. Beautifully shot in b&w around the beaten path parts of France, we follow a young man named Sébastien (George Babluani) as he tries to provide for his beleaguered family. The opening shot of this movie is a pretty good litmus test – mysterious, ominous music plays as Sébastien returns home from work. The b&w photography is excellently framed and adds perfectly to the bleak surroundings. Once in the small apartment he hands over the days earnings to what one assumes are his mother and small sister. The music becomes even eerier as an almost creepy smile comes over the little girls face. The screen goes to black – a gunshot – title. At once we have great mood – mystery, a sense of foreboding; and an underlying sense that we’re not dealing with the most delicate of touches when it comes to the storytelling.
Whether or not the impression this movie leaves you with has to do with how much you know going into it is a good question. I have the feeling I would have liked this movie more not knowing a thing about it. But I’d read a little bit about it when it was briefly released in theaters a while back and I’d caught the trailer in front of another DVD a few weeks ago. The trailer is stunning, and is basically simply one two-minute scene taken, uncut, from the middle of the movie. [see the end of this review for a similar trailer] Of course this ends up being the best two minutes from the movie, which leads me to thinking this whole film is a bit of a let down.
Again, we are presented with a recipe for success here: one hell of an interesting story – one that is believe-it-or-not based in reality; some great photography and locations; brilliant non-use of music – I think there’s only three points in the movie when the score comes in which I thought was a very effective technique; and aside from our main protagonist Sébastien, some good acting. George Babluani as Sébastien did cause some problems for me, he’s about as engaging as a slice of French bread, but in the end it wasn’t his entire fault why I was disappointed. I felt that writer/director Géla Babluani simply got a bit lazy with the story.
Before you say it, Paddy, I know. How can I call out 13 Tzameti as disappointing me with its story when I initially looked past The Illusionist’s stale Swiss-cheese story? I don’t know. I think it’s because I was expecting more from 13 Tzameti. (Whereas I was expecting nothing from The Illusionist.) I really thought there were so many cool things they could have done with the story that were basically glossed right over. [Okay folks – I’ve kept you in the dark up till now, so if you want to stay that way skip over the rest of my review – major spoilers follow.]
One of the bonus features on this DVD is an interview with a guy who, seemingly for a living, actually plays this twisted version of Russian roulette that Sébastien, through a series of unfortunate events, ends up thrown into. The feature isn’t even that good, horribly edited, enough that you almost can’t even sit through the whole thing. But it’s telling – I’m not sure if it’s Géla asking this guy the questions, but whoever it is, they don’t even know what to ask this man who’s willing to tell them whatever they want. And it’s a question that is the elephant in the room in this movie. Why do these people do this? All we get out of the movie is well, this guy’s so fat he can’t stand up. This guy’s an alcoholic and this guy’s a heroin addict. And this other guy is, well, a real dickhead? I’m sorry, but it all felt so pat and uninteresting – this is the meat of the story if you ask me. Getting at least a hint of what brought these people to do this would have given the movie much more suspense. I was so bothered by it that I felt it completely betrayed the events at the end. At the very least the people playing this game have either a death wish or have accepted the fact that they’re either going to die or make a shitload of money. The guy in the bonus feature confirms this.
So the ending gives us a man who’s won this game three times in a row and obviously has no care in the world as to whether or not he lives another day. Him and his brother, who you never get a real idea of what purpose he serves (to somehow throw away the fortune his brother must have amassed?), are real bastards the whole movie; no remorse, seemingly two people void of human feelings. What is it about this man, this situation, that warrants revenge? And if it’s simply for the money and not revenge, it still stinks of trying to come up with a decent ending and settling for a bleak “shock”. Perhaps if we’d gotten a shot of the brother blowing his brains out after he discovers an empty bag we would have gotten some good irony. What did you make of it all, Padraic?
To take up one of the movies themes: I’ll see your critique and raise you one better. Not only do I agree that the movie lacks deep characters and that Babluani’s relatives are best kept behind the camera, but I also didn’t like the use of black and white film. I usually love b&w and don’t think it nearly as pretentious as a lot of people do, but in this movie, it served very little purpose. If the movie lingered on Sebastien and his family, and the lives of Eastern European immigrants in France, then it might be acceptable, but aside from a few of the more dramatic scenes, the b&w is mostly distracting.
I also agree that this movie could have been so much more. I hadn’t heard a thing about it before it arrived in the mail (I didn’t even look at the Netflix blurb), and I still came away disappointed. This movie should have been better. It had 1) the classic set up of the naïf wandering down the wrong rabbit hole, 2) the most intense dramatic device available to any movie (sorry, can’t tell you what it is) and 3) the tried and true theme of the rich getting over on the poor and yet it never really comes together.
Now, 13 Tzameti is not nearly the disaster that The Illusionist was—and doesn’t deserve to be mentioned in the same review (tsk tsk Sean)—and is probably worth an hour and a half for any cinephile. There was real care put into making this movie, and it has the balls to produce one of the nastiest allegories for globalization and the EU that I can imagine. Right now, I think Babluani is probably ahead of himself and he has only the ambition, and not yet the talent, to really make a great film. There are times when 13 Tzameti approaches both dramatic and thematic brilliance, but these scenes are too few, and just when you think you can lose yourself in Babluani the writer’s vision, Babluani the director shows up and breaks the spell.
On IMDB, Babluani is listed as having another movie called 13 that is due for release in 2008, which I assume is a remake of Tzameti. I’m hoping that the story remains the same, but that a better lead is cast along with color photography. While I’m shocked to hear that the story told in this movie is based on real events, I’m not all that surprised. While the depredations heaped on the poor by the rich are rarely as explicit as the “game” depicted in 13 Tzameti, the consequences of real life exploitation are no less disturbing. Babluani’s gift as I see it is that he is able to get across this truth in a way that isn’t preachy or self-serving and the world of film needs more directors like him; those willing to explore the most savage elements of mankind and not hold back in their depictions. I wish him luck.
Wrap it up, Sean:
See, in no way do I feel that Babluani the writer is the one who’s breaking spells. I don’t think Gela’s eye betrays him at all in this film. And everyone gives very natural performances. Only in George’s case, natural is a stretch. It’s the writing, the story, which needed help. I will take George’s Sébastien if the story gave me more about the people he finds down the rabbit hole. To take that good analogy for this movie further – when reading Alice in Wonderland, Alice isn’t all that interesting of a character in her story – it’s the interesting people she finds that makes it a classic.
While he’s working on his remake, Babluani already has another movie soon to be available on Netflix called The Legacy (and yes, his brother’s in that one too). Reading the description of it (a modern Hammer film?) reinforces my belief that Gela really isn’t that interested in telling stories that reveal much in the way of human condition, globalization or anything else for that matter – but rather moody thrillers with a couple of good twists and surprises. Which is fine by me, but do we really need more directors or stories like this? I think the jury’s still out on this guy and whether he really is interested in social injustices or if he simply picked a story out of the newspaper and wrote a script around it that his brother could be in.
Spoilers in the trailer: