Arnaud Desplechin is a storyteller who often finds a comic note of fairytale otherworldliness and whimsy – and there is a faint, disconcerting trace of this in his new film, a movie I couldn’t make friends with.
It is a drama that attempts to behave like a tough police procedural in a quasi-Melville vein, but also like a musing prose-poem about the vanity of human wishes. This uneasy mix is shown on the face of its star, Roschdy Zem, playing police captain Daoud: he has to look like a plausible tough cop, but at all times sports an unvarying half-smile of all-knowing wisdom and forgiveness. The tonal combination also accounts for the intrusive orchestral score in some police station scenes, music that tries to be tense and sad at the same time.
Oh Mercy! is, in fact, a fictionalised adaptation of the 2008 French TV documentary Roubaix, Commissariat Central, which followed a determined police officer and his colleagues in the economically depressed town of Roubaix, near Lille, as they deal with a range of crimes, in particular the shocking homicide of an old woman.
Desplechin has written a new, dramatised version with screenwriter Léa Mysius, and his title – Roubaix, Une Lumière, or Roubaix, A Light – strikes a more spiritual note than the true-crime original. The English title is Oh Mercy!, which might possibly be inspired by the Bob Dylan album of the same name.
Zem plays Daoud, a man with an Algerian family background and a close relationship with the town’s Franco-Algerian community. He and his officers have to deal with all sorts of problems, big and small, which arise like a collection of bittersweet short stories about tough lives in the city. There is an arson, car insurance fraud, a rape in a subway, a runaway mixed-race teen girl of north African and French lineage who once chose her white mum’s surname but now takes her dad’s family name – and there’s a young man in prison with a close, painful connection to the captain. For interrogations, laidback Daoud plays the softly spoken good cop to the shouty bad cops under his command. On his own time, this unmarried guy sips a thoughtful drink at an upscale bar in the evenings, and likes the horse-racing, but without gambling.
It is this man’s heavily signalled wisdom and understanding of human nature that will be needed for the film’s single most shocking crime: the murder of an elderly woman in a grim neighbourhood. The cops have spoken to two possible witnesses about another crime, the arson, nearby: Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier), who live together. Claude behaves strangely: at one moment apparently afraid of being seen as a snitch, the next moment happy to come down to the station to help identify culprits. When the woman’s body is found, the police need to talk to this couple again, and there is something strange going on. They are questioned separately, then together, and these harrowing interrogations are the meat of the film.
There is something self-admiring and self-conscious in the whole setup of these lengthy scenes. They are not suspenseful, as such – at first, I wrongly suspected an obvious thriller twist about which of the two will turn out to be more ruthless. And there is not exactly a Rashomon mystery in the discrepancy between their statements. It is more that Daoud, like a sad priest, knows the truth – a truth we can more or less guess by taking the obvious dramatic signs at face value – and these interrogations are simply a way of eliciting a confession that will ease the culprit’s soul as much as anything else.
The story, though, is forced, supercilious and contrived, oddly, considering its true-crime origins. Seydoux and Forrestier are good, but Zem is almost insupportably wise and decent, and the rape subplot is cleared up with almost casual ease. Oh Mercy! belongs to a new genre that could be called too-good-to-be-true crime.