A Belgian proletarian caper movie is hardly the first thing anyone expected from Lucas Belvaux, whose Trilogy, a set of three interlocking features, was an audacious formal anomaly in recent French mainstream cinema.
The Right Of The Weakest lies halfway between working-class realism in a Ken Loach/Dardennes bracket, and a Melville-esque tough-guy crime drama. But the film's decidedly ordinary execution, its narrative sluggishness and a staggeringly vain performance by Belvaux himself make his film the dud of the Cannes competition so far, beating even Southland Tales on that score by sheer dint of its drabness.
Neither hard-edged enough to qualify as art cinema proper, nor confident enough in its gestures towards genre commerciality, the film has less than glittering sales prospects. The film simply falls flat despite impeccable right-on social leanings.
The setting is Liege in Belgium, Dardennes' own stamping ground, where, in the district of Droixhe, much of the workforce of a steel smelting plant has been laid off. Among them are academically over-qualified family man Patrick (Caravaca), who happily tends the home and allotment while his wife Carole (Regnier) works at a dry-cleaning plant; jovial beer-slugging Robert (Semal); and feisty Jean-Pierre (Descamps), who has lost the use of his legs doing his extremely dangerous job (steel smelters, we're told more than once, are the "aristocracy of the working class".
While playing cards at their local bar, the men make friends with Marc (Belvaux), a tough, taciturn worker at the local Jupiter beer bottling plant (which he appears to operate entirely single-handed).
With money running scarce, Patrick's life comes to a crisis when Carole's moped breaks down and he realises that he hasn't got the money to buy her a new one. Increasingly embittered about their social disempowerment and lack of life prospects, Patrick and his friends at first club together for lottery tickets, hoping to buy Carole a new moped with their winnings. When they don't pay off, they try a new tack. Learning that Marc has done time for armed robbery, they persuade him to help them steal a million from their old workplace's scrap metal dealer (Melki).
Before the caper itself gets under way, there's much convivial japery between the chums, and larking around with Patrick's winsome young son Steve, to whom the accomplices all play protective uncles. Patrick himself isn't party to the heist, but when one of his friends inadvertently blows the gaffe, Marc opts out, but Patrick wants in. It's left for Patrick and Robert to perform the operation kitted out with ludicrous false moustaches, but when it inevitably goes wrong, Marc, who's been hovering on the sidelines, rises to the occasion and mounts a distraction for the police.
It's this final sequence, his ludicrous apotheosis as a Cagney-esque desperado, that represents Belvaux's most outrageous lapse of judgement: he's fallen into the worst mistake an actor-director can make, that of falling in love with his own close-up. A painfully extended helicopter shot of the local terrain ends the film on a grindingly bathetic note.
The supporting cast, notably Descamps and Semal as jovial salt-of-the-earth types, keep the film rolling, and Caravaca is personable if a little lacklustre as the sweet, smart guy out of his depth. Unfortunately, Regnier, one of the rising stars of French cinema, is given little to do but be sweetly long-suffering. The real weak spot, however, is Belvaux, more or less reprising his moody loner from Trilogy episode Cavale (On The Run), here giving a one-note performance that largely consists of prickly scowls, with or without cigarette balanced Belmondo-style in the corner of his mouth.
Cleanly shot by Pierre Milon, the film offers a few memorably rusty, dusty industrial landscapes, although, no doubt for budget reasons - the factory universe Belvaux evokes seems too underpopulated to strike true. Overall, however, the setting both looks and feels too drab to hold any visual interest. Narratively too, the film - with its premise not a million miles from Paul Schrader's caper film Blue Collar - is threadbare, and Belvaux's plotting is as patchy as that of his conspirators.
Riccardo Del Fra's score is ominously stylish at points, but overall tries too hard for moody tension. What earned the film a place in competition - where it truly is the weakest link - remains a mystery.
Entre Chien et Loup
Agat Films & Cie
France 3 Cinema
Ateliers de Baere
Riccardo del Fra