Antoine, a young divorcé, loves to spend his nights out partying. He is a careless bon-vivant and libertine – to get his way he lies and he sponges off others, and he does not take responsibility for his actions. One fateful night however, a lie too far gets him in trouble with the wrong people. He is made an offer he cannot refuse, and so he ends up doing some snooping for his new “employer”. But he does not have to do this alone as some of his dodgy acquaintances agree to assist him.
This French film, known internationally as Love Bites, feels a bit style-over-substance – thanks to its thin plot and a surplus in atmosphere. This feeling also stems from the fact that the film has very little going for it apart from the atmosphere. While the actors are good and the main characters have lots of potential, the screenplay does not use that potential in the slightest.
Apart from the cast and the atmosphere, the film also sports some suitable locations, as well as good cinematography. The film often uses dark, narrow, contorted sets or locations, and the DP, Pierre Aïm, tries to make the best of it.
As I said, the actors are good, especially those playing the main characters (Guillaume Canet as Antione, Gérard Lanvin as his friend Étienne, and Dario Argento’s daughter Asia as the mysterious Violaine). And there are good performances to be found in the supporting roles as well, for example that by Jean-Marie Winling. But, as I said, the screenplay does not make use of the characters, therefore the performances go to waste: All the characters remain vague in their execution, except for the lead, Antoine.
And Antoine is possibly the biggest problem in the film. Nothing here matches up. The seedy bars and clubs he encounters on his quest are not much different from the night life he is used to – and anything burlesque is far less prominent than the cover art would suggest. The scary gangland characters he meets are not much more scary than the scum he has already encountered before. And the sex-life of Antoine and his friend Étienne is also rather adventurous – at least the film seems to imply as much. So his encounter with the mysterious Violaine could not be that earth-shattering.
The hook of the film should be that an average, boring, middle-aged, accountant-type man gets slowly sucked in by an outrageous, otherworldly night-life that repels and fascinates him in equal measure. But this is not who Antoine is (see above), and so this is not that story. At least, Antoine should be seen as desperate (which he isn’t, because that is not part of his personality) and/or as someone who is swept along by events without much agency. There is a bit of that latter element in the film’s first act, but the filmmakers leave that behind and give Antoine more agency, which seems a mistake to me. And so, because of the way Antoine is written, the character arc does not work and so the efforts in building an atmosphere go to waste.
There are also problems with the way the story is developed. It seems that there are some smaller scenes that have been left on the cutting room floor. Scenes that may not have been important in itself, but that contained information that was later missing. This leads to “jumps” in the story, and to minor plot holes.
Then there are the “humorous” moments that often feel off. Some of them work, some don’t. But those that don’t consequently feel awkward. There are scenes that try to use a Coen, or more often a Tarantino style of humour, and they mostly fail. Watching this film in French with German subtitles probably did not help, but most of those scenes would not have worked either way. Moments like these need to be carefully planned and executed. In this film, they don’t work; and even though they do not lead to a tonal clash, they feel awkward (as I had just mentioned) and they at least contribute to a slight shift in tone.
From the outset, this film has a “modern noir” vibe: you see people wandering through smoky, disreputable dens in central Paris, asking questions and looking for a specific person. But the longer it goes on, and the more the minor plot holes, narrative jumps, and failed attempts at humour accumulate, the more the story evolves into an aimless hunt that looks like someone was trying to force their way into the comedydrama sub-genre defined by the likes of The Big Lebowski and Inherent Vice.
Many of the film’s shortcomings may have to do with the fact that it has been adapted from a novel (always difficult), or that director Antoine de Caunes and script writer Laurent Chalumeau were very early in their careers when they made this film.
In the end, I cannot rate this film higher than 4.5 out of 10 – which is frustrating, because this is not a bad film, it is just a film that has so many small things going wrong that watching it is an experience entirely free of enjoyment.