French film Comme Un Homme (Bad Seeds) is an interesting yet uneasy blend of the neo-noir and the bildungsfilm. The story follows two middle-class teenaged boys, Greg (Kevin Azais) and Louis (Emile Berling), as they kidnap a young female teacher from their school. Greg is a delinquent with behavioural issues that escalate to the point where he is expelled from school, and in an act of revenge, abducts the teacher, with the aid of his friend Louis, who is the film’s main protagonist. Things soon spiral out of control as Louis discovers Greg has more sinister plans than simple abduction.
Comme un Homme is adapted from a novel by acclaimed French writing duo; Boileau-Narcejac, whose other big-screen adaptations include French horror classics such as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) and Georges Franju’s Les Yeux sans Visage (1960), as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense thriller Vertigo (1958). Comme Un Homme is directed by Safy Nebbou, whose recent work includes celebrated dramas The Giraffe’s Neck (2006), Mark of an Angel (2008), and L’Autre Dumas (2010). The present film is perhaps best viewed above all else as a profound character study into the effects of tragedy, grief, and absentee parents.
Initially, it seems that Louis’s father, Pierre (Charles Berling, real life father of Emile Berling), is more interested in his work as the head-teacher of the high-school his son attends than he is in his own son. However, as things unfold it becomes clear that he is not a disinterested father. Both father and son are trying to come to terms with the tragic death of Pierre’s wife in an accident that also nearly claimed Louis. In the scenes shared by Pierre and Louis, Nebbou subtly peels back the layers of what initially seems a simple aim to uncover the complicated relationship between conscience and consequence, an uncovering which is candid yet delicate in its approach to the film’s themes.
Emile Berling’s performance as the misled youth is compassionately rendered through the many close-up shots of his unusual features – he believably portrays a figure battling with grief, fear, loneliness and the inner turmoil of a broken conscience. Using contrasts of darkness and light, especially in the close-ups of the films characters, and also filming in adverse weather conditions, Nebbou creates a world that is unstable, uncomfortable, and unpredictable.
However, the juxtaposed worlds of the inner self and the external plot may not be to everyone’s liking. The film does cross genres, both on a psychological level and also in the way the story unfolds; the effect is that viewers are left unsettled throughout. However, the film may benefit from a “less is more” approach; instead of pushing forward the themes, the lingering unease at times detracts from what is otherwise a powerful and troubling drama.
Comme un Homme is currently doing the rounds at the UK French Film Festival and is both thoughtful and thorough in its treatment of its subject matter. Both father and son Berling, particularly Emile deliver extraordinary performances, so engaging that you forget you are watching a subtitled foreign language production. This is due to Nebbou’s understanding of the importance of finding the balance between an action and character-driven narrative. While the film is not perfect, it is definitely worth viewing; Comme Un Homme stays with you for days afterwards as both a great character study and a gripping psychological thriller.