Cannes Correspondences #14: Cops, Devils, Gangsters, Goodbyes

Two cop films are the focus of our last Cannes dispatch: Arnaud Desplechin's "Oh Mercy!" & Lee Won-tae’s "The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil."
Leonardo Goi
The Notebook is covering Cannes with an on-going correspondence between critic Leonardo Goi and editor Daniel Kasman.
Oh Mercy
Dear Danny, 
I only left Cannes yesterday, and yet the Croisette seemed unrealistically far this morning, almost as if it had already begun to drift into a cloud in time—as though it had never happened. This is my last dispatch of the year; like yours, it finds me writing you from the comforts of home. I began my day re-reading our correspondences—partly to give in to the nostalgia, but also to remind myself of all we’ve seen the past couple of weeks. And with the benefits of a good night’s sleep, things looked a lot clearer, and double bills I hadn’t yet thought of began to surface: films we had seen and written on in separate dispatches, which suddenly made for eye-opening pairings. What to make of a double bill with Bruno Dumont’s Jeanne and the Terrence Malick Palme d’Or contender you enjoyed so much, A Hidden Life? Or one looking at the excursions into sisterhood and patriarchy of Karim Aïnouz’s The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmão and Céline Sciamma’s fulminating Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Double bills seldom come about organically during a festival, but there was one exception to the norm this year, and it is on this fortuitous coincidence I wanted to devote this last letter: the serendipitous chance encounter that, courtesy of some fruitless queuing for a main competition title, led me to watch Arnaud Desplechin'a Oh Mercy! (Roubaix, une lumière) and Lee Won-tae’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil one after the other. 
In 2017, Arnaud Desplechin had bowed in Cannes with Ismael’s Ghosts, an inventive, roving portrait of an aging director (longtime muse Mathieu Almaric) that patched together stories and snippets of stories with restless abandon. There could be nothing farther from that lilting tone and labyrinthine scaffolding than his new Palme d’Or contender, the somber cop procedural Oh Mercy! And where the Roubaix-native director had already returned to the home turf for A Christmas Tale (2008) and My Golden Days (2015), neither one had framed Roubaix quite like the crime-ridden wasteland Oh Mercy! conjures up. France’s poorest commune, a godforsaken place where about 45% of its denizens live below poverty line (information parceled out in what sometimes veers into TV reporting, a vein that possibly owes to Oh Mercy!’s source, Mosco Boucault’s police documentary Roubaix, Commissariat Central), is explored through the antics of a local police station and its becalmed, charismatic, and regal chief, captain Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem). It’s a sanctuary of justice and order where cops work tirelessly to keep the city safe under Daoud’s benign eye. Interestingly, and contrary to the other France-based cop film and Palme d’Or contender, Ladj Ly’s far superior and inspired Les misérables, no policeman is crooked in Oh Mercy!. Sure, there are moments when Roubaix denizens express their skepticism toward authorities, moments when former convicts clash with officers, but even then the animosity between people and police is reined in and diffused in a film that’s unmistakably in awe of the cops it trails behind. 
Which dons the police operations a quasi-messianic aura, channelled most explicitly in the seraphic Daoud—and what a performance this is by Zem, venturing into crime scenes with a cool, towering aura—but also embodied by the station’s newbie, profoundly devout Christian Louis Cotterel (Antoine Reinartz). “Lord, give me the strength to forgive,” the lad prays whilst polishing and toying with his gun, and however interesting the syncretism may be, it is something Desplechin regretfully doesn’t care to explore in much detail. For this is unmistakably Daoud’s story, and it takes a while for Oh Mercy! to decide who else to zero in on with the same focus. Eventually, this turns out to be Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier), a cagey couple who may or may not have vital information—and indeed, something to do with—an arson attack that culminated with the death of an 83-year-old next-door neighbor. But even after these two first grace the screen, it takes some time before Daoud’s men return to both. In the meantime, Oh Mercy! trails behind all sorts of other parallel investigations, patching up a first act that feels more like an overstretched and overstuffed episode of Law and Order than an ethnography of a crime-riddled no man’s land and the people fighting inside it. 
The problem is not just that the rhizomatic and bloated narrative detracts attention from what Desplechin eventually presents as the main case. It’s that the other investigations are potentially far more interesting than the one Oh Mercy! zooms into. There’s the story of a serial pedophile terrorizing the whole region, a man whose atrocities echo as muffled background noise once the focus turns to the arson case (and whose investigation ends without much fanfare in a quick phone call to Daoud); and there’s the case of a missing teenage girl (Maïssa Taleb) who’s run away from her parents, and whom Daoud must persuade to return home. The arson attack has neither the sense of urgency of the former case, nor the affection of the latter. It does, however, turn into a brilliant display of acting bravado by Seydoux and Forestier, with the latter possibly outshining the former, as Oh Mercy! slowly morphs into a chamber drama, with the cops closing in on the two women and debunking their alibis in endless crossover examinations. 
But even when spiced up by Forestier’s nervous ticks and slurred deliveries, her wide-eyed stare opening up to grapple with the sheer size of the mess she put herself into, Oh Mercy! never truly takes off. For a film that crafts most of his best material via the grinding of personalities at odds with one another (Daoud and Louis, Claude and Marie), there just isn’t much grinding at stake. And even the unsettling nighttime mood cast by Irina Lubtchansky’s cinematography hardly penetrates into the interiors’ proceedings, leaving you to reckon with a procedural cop film graced with a few inspired scenes that feel closer to compartmentalized units than parts of a cohesive whole. 
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil
Where Oh Mercy unspooled like a patchy ride of leisurely length (a tighter trimming of its 119 minutes by editor Laurence Briaud would have helped plenty), Lee Won-tae’s The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil struck me as its polar opposite. Sadly slotted in the outside competition sidebar, a far cry from the somber, meditative, and logorrheic Oh Mercy, The Gangster spiced up my festival’s ending with ample doses of corrupted cops, ruthless mobsters, bareknuckle fights, and fast-paced violence in a crime thriller that homes in on the unlikely alliance between a thug and a cop fumbling after a serial killer. 
The Gangster is Jang Dong-su (Ma Dong-seok), a powerful boss ruling over the turf of Cheonan (a city south of Seoul) in 2005. A man with biceps the size of a man’s head, an indelible grin on his face, and a fortune large enough to ensure the local police won’t mess with his illegal business, the boss comes within an inch of losing his life after surviving an attempted stabbing by a mysterious serial killer, the eponymous Devil (Kim Sung-kyu). It’s the same psychopath the city’s cops have tried to bring to justice, but all efforts have proved unsuccessful, and for the most part, half-hearted. All, that is, except for those of the police station’s rising star, detective Jung Tae-seok (Kim Moo-yeol), a loose-cannon who’s so obsessed with the case he ends up teaming up with the least likely partner possible, underworld boss Jang himself. “Whoever catches him first keeps him,” nods the Gangster, adding a grave: “join me if you can.”
The uncommon team-up serves as catalyst for the reckless, pulpy, gruesome journey that ensues, as Cop and Gangster embark on a revenge spree that sees them tracking an elusive psychopath while constantly challenging and negotiating the boundaries and scope of their own fragile alliance. It is upon the liaison that Lee Won-tae’s crafts some of his best material. Paved with delightfully ironic ambiguities and thoroughly enjoyable as it may be, there are moments when the Gangster-Cop pairing turns into a delightfully perceptive character study: a portrait of two men at the opposite ends of the ethical spectrum as they meet halfway. To be watching Ma Dong-seok fight next to Kim Moo-yeol is to be witnessing the Cop gradually incorporating the Gangster’s mannerisms. It’s a transformation that plays out through alpha male chest-beating and internecine struggles with other officers, and which detective Jung Tae-seok undergoes almost subconsciously—at least until a schoolgirl, bumping into Gangster and Cop, points at the latter and claims, “you look more like a gangster than him.”
The Gangster does not purport to be a study of masculinity, though in its own roundabout way, it offers precisely that. The indomitable fury boss Jang Dong-su channels into the quest for revenge speaks to the incalculable damages the near-death-encounter could bring to his uber-macho reputation. “A gangster getting stabbed,” a rival mobster sneers at him during a hospital visit, “I’d just kill myself.” And while Won-Tae Lee’s script thrives on the peddling of cops-and-thugs-getting-along bromides, it is also unmistakably aware that the boundaries between the two universes, legal and underworld, are there to stay. “He’s still a fucking gangster,” detective Jung Tae-seok giggles at boss Jang Dong-su in a rare moment of collegial banter, cops and thugs eating and drinking under the same roof. But where differences cannot be erased altogether, they can still be muted down—if only for a glorious 109 minutes of a blood-soaked, exuberant crime thriller.
The Gangster may not be a patch on the shattering beauty of a few other Cannes titles I was lucky to see and write on, but it did provide the reckless, rollicking enjoyment I needed after two weeks of four-hours-a-night sleep, shameless junk food intake (or no food intake at all), and endless queuing. It’s been a crazy routine, and it’s been so worth it. Reporting from the Croisette with you was a real pleasure, Danny, and I look forward to more letters in the near future. 
Until then, may your days and weeks ahead be blessed with wonderful films, and wonderful people to watch them with. 
Leo

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CannesCannes 2019Festival CoverageCorrespondencesArnaud DesplechinLee Won-tae
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