Cheerful absurdity, hangdog humour and a sober recognition that, when you come down to it, provincial France just isn't the wild frontier of American crime cinema - all this makes Samuel Benchetrit's downbeat farce a distinctively offbeat pleasure. A set of linked crime vignettes, centred around a drab roadside cafeteria, I Always Wanted to Be A Gangster is a knowing spoof on the themes and structure of Pulp Fiction, but with a melancholic sweetness and lugubrious pacing that are much closer to Jim Jarmusch or Aki Kaurismaki.
A prestigious cast of familiar faces cheerfully muck in, and send themselves up not a little, in an engaging low-budget black-and-white comedy that occasionally feels overstretched but generally holds the viewer's goodwill. Enterprising distributors will be tempted, as long as they can work out how to market this oddball hybrid. On the festival circuit (it premiered at Locarno), Benchetrit's skewed humour should spark the same kind of enthusiasm as the Belgian road comedy Aaltra did in 2004.
Benchetrit's second feature - following 2003's Janis And John - begins in the car park of a run-down cafeteria, where a small-time crook (Baer) makes a hash of his hold-up plans from the second he dons his stocking mask. He threatens the on-duty waitress (Mouglalis) with an imaginary gun, but she's unimpressed and proves to be of tougher stuff than him, as we see from a flashback in pastiche silent-cinema style, which shows the bizarre way in which she got her job.
A second segment has two inept kidnappers (Lanners, Serge Lariviere) abducting a teenage girl, only to find that she is a suicidally-inclined Goth. Then we meet a gang of elderly retired hoodlums (played by veteran luminaries including Rochefort, Jean-Pierre Kalfon and Laurent Terzieff), who spring an associate from hospital to settle a debt of honour at their former woodland hideout.
Trouble is, the old shack has been long since built over, and in its place stands... the cafeteria, where the gang sit down to ponder their next move.
A perfectly-pitched minor-key interlude, also set in the cafeteria, has real-life European chanteurs Alain Bashung and Arno playing themselves. Meeting by chance one night while touring, these weathered rockers, who both look as if they've seen a few frosty mornings, reminisce about the old days, then start scoring points off each other.
Played by both men with shambling cool and flawless self-parody, this vignette comes across like a European segment of Jarmusch's Coffee And Cigarettes series. The film ends by looping back on itself, Tarantino-style, with the Baer and Mouglalis characters facing off over a gun and proving they're made for each other.
The poker-faced absurdism generally stays in a more or less realist register, except for a few ingenious flourishes - notably, the unexpected use of a flashback and voice-over in the final section, and for a glimpse of the gangsters' salad days, a cartoonish overhead shot of a circle of fedoras around a card table.
Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves no end, though always maintaining the appropriate reserve, and Mouglalis's femme fatale allure is neatly pitched against the overall ambience, which is doggedly anti-glamorous. There's also a gently philosophical comment on mortality to be found in this seemingly facetious film, with the casting of erstwhile young lions such as Terzieff and Kalfon, whose former glamour still shows through in their distinctive weathered features.