Omar Sy stars in the latest adaptation of the classic French 1924 play ’Knock ou le triomphe de la médecine’

Dr Knock

Dir/scr:Lorraine Lévy. France. 2017. 113mins

Lorraine Lévy’s adaptation of the oft-filmed 1924 play Knock couldn’t be more old-fashioned had it been dug up from an archeological site except for one bold touch: the title character, a con man-turned-physician immortalised by Louis Jouvet, is played not by a Caucasian actor but by Omar Sy. Presto! When this Dr. Knock shows up in a lily-white town in the French heartland in the mid-1950s the film firmly presents an idealised world where racism doesn’t exist but pettiness and jealousy and venal aims still do. The gamble pays off as imperious and wily Knock simultaneously befriends and fleeces the locals with their oblivious complicity.

Omar Sy is perfectly cast in a role worthy of his talents

Whether French audiences will embrace an experiment that tampers with an inter-generational cultural touchstone is up for grabs. We as viewers know that in the setting presented anyone of Sy’s heritage would have been shunned or run out of town on a rail. But the film works as pure entertainment with an undercurrent of social commentary about “outsiders” because Sy’s matter-of-fact charisma is such that he carries the premise and execution on his square shoulders. Which, incidentally, are garbed in elegant flannel suits that were cut from the actual patterns for thre suits Cary Grant wore in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1941 Suspicion.

In Marseilles in the early 1950s, Knock is running away from crooked associates to whom he owes money. They beat him up and give him 24 hours to pay his debt. But resourceful Knock talks his way into being hired as the medical officer on a departing passenger ship whose captain happliy goes along with Knock’s lack of qualifications since there are no other applicants.

Always alert to ways to insinuate himself with others by intuiting their desires and insecurities, Knock improvises so well as a doctor that he decides to attend medical school for real.

Five years later he arrives in the village of Saint-Maurice, to take over the previous lone physician’s practice. Knock really has learned the healing arts but he has not set aside the skills that served him well as a petty thief and con man. He soon has the sleepy town at his feet.

A splendid cast of character actors are clearly having a blast playing, well, characters: the pharmacist (Michel Vuillermoz) and his wife (Audrey Dana), the local innkeeper (Andrea Ferreol), a farm owner (Sabine Azema) and her dirt poor but lovely employee Adele (Ana Giradot), the postman (Christian Hecq), the wealthiest woman in town (Helene Vincent) all admire him. Only the parish priest (popular boyish comic Alex Lutz), whose congregation starts looking more to Knock than to him, jealously suspects that something is not on the up and up.

Pin-pointing every citizen’s foibles and deploying bespoke flattery Knock soon has a relatively healthy population convinced that all sorts of medical treatments are necessary – each with an accompanying fee, of course. It is variously said that Jules Romains’ play was meant as an indictment of still-new advertising (the first consultation is free) and also as a cautionary tale about being taken in by smooth talkers in politics in the wake of WWI.

Lévy has put a sunnier spin on the original material’s dark themes. In the manner of a mostly benevolent Pied Piper, Knock’s business thrives and he’s enjoying a slowly budding romance with Adele when a nasty vagabond stumbles into town. It’s none other than Lansky (Pascal Elbé) who watched Knock sail away from the dock in Marseilles and swore he’d get him some day.

Lansky knows he can blow Knock’s cover and starts blackmailing him. This and Adele’s nasty cough are key turning points in a tale that has more depth than it seems to on the buoyant, marvelously art-directed surface.

Sy is perfectly cast in a role worthy of his talents. The same movie told now with a white central protagonist would be a pointless period piece whose time had come and gone. But putting Sy in the driver’s seat lends a fine new spin to otherwise old-fashioned craftsmanship.

Production companies: Curiosa Films, Moana Films

International sales: TF1 Studio

Producers: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier

Screenplay: Lorraine Lévy, based on the play ‘Knock ou le triomphe de la médecine’ by Jules Romains

Cinematography: Emmanuel Soyer

Editor: Sylvie Gadmer

Production design: Françoise Dupertuis

Music: Cyrille Aufort

Main cast: Omar Sy, Alex Lutz, Ana Girardot, Sabine Azema, Andrea Ferreol, Pascal Elbé, Audrey Dana, Helene Vincent, Michel Vuillermoz, Christian Hecq