A funky riff on the theme music from 2001: A Space Odyssey opens Black, a new French film and the second craziest movie of this year’s SXSW Film Festival. And the weirdness doesn’t end there. The catchy redux leads to a bank robbery that goes quickly awry, a maniacal, island-dwelling millionaire who’s slowly turning into a snake, a volatile and crazy Russian general, witches, witch doctors, bare Nubian breasteses, gunfire, machete-wielding wrestlers, and two antiheroes imbued with cat powers who dress up like the members of an African Kiss tribute band…
The robbery attempt ends in a shootout with police, and three of the four thieves end up dead. Black (MC Jean Gab’1), the only survivor, escapes with his life but without the money. He soon gets an offer for a job in Senegal involving millions of dollars in diamonds and is immediately on a plane for the dark continent. Black was born in Africa before moving to France, and he sees the Senegalese bankers and police as easy targets. His assumption is essentially correct except that he fails to consider that others might be after the rocks too. And these others are crazy motherfuckers. His team of robbers is assembled, introduced, and dispatched fairly quickly, and once again Black is on his own.
The performances are all exaggerated to one degree or another, but at least they’re consistent with the blaxploitation vibe emanating from several corners of the film. The main villains are two power-hungry white guys (of course), and they’re the most over the top. One of them, Degrand (Francois Levantal), is suffering from a really bad (and disgusting) case of psoriasis… his skin is shedding and being replaced with scales. Why you ask? Not sure, but it may have something to do with the witch he’s screwing. Another is Ouliakov (Anton Yakovlev), the Russian ex-military man whose acting out-Kinski’s Klaus Kinski. He is a madman, a hilariously expressive and constantly excitable madman who at one point actually pops up from beneath a blanket and says “Ah hah!” Which in French sounds exactly like “Ah hah!” The most entertaining performance though belongs to MC Jean who fills the screen with smiles, laughs, and enormous charisma. He was previously seen in a much smaller role in the French parkour hit, District 13. His action isn’t as impressive here, but he’s still a joy to watch.
Black is the latest cinematic salvo from France, and once again you’ll be wondering what the hell is in their drinking water. It may not be a brutal and gory horror film (like recent French exports Inside and Martyrs), but it is incredibly odd, never boring, and unlike every other film at this year’s SXSW. Unfortunately, it may be a little too odd and disjointed for it’s own good. What starts as an offbeat crime thriller takes on aspects of seventies exploitation before going completely nuts with an animalistic battle between Black, a venomous Degrand, and a sexy Interpol minx. I say minx, but she actually “becomes” a black panther complete with cat vision. Black himself takes on the agility and vocal chords of a lion. It all makes zero sense, but still manages to be pretty fun.
Director Pierre Lafarrgue makes his feature debut with Black, and it’s definitely a wild and unpredictable ride. He spoke before the screening and said his goal was to make a “Saturday night movie” and in that he succeeds. He also accomplishes quite a bit with a presumably low budget, but many of the trappings are still there. The action varies wildly in type and quality from shootouts to a mildly parkourish foot chase to some rather tepid fight scenes, but while there’s plenty of action in Black, there are no real “wow” moments. Performances, as discussed above, are exaggerated to good effect, but they help lend the whole thing a rather cartoonish sheen. The movie doesn’t aim to be taken seriously, it simply wants to provide almost two hours of off the wall, unpredictable entertainment… and it pretty much does. Lafarrgue is definitely a director to watch, and I’m curious to see what he’ll do next.
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