Sunday, July 12, 2009

Review of A Self Made Hero

“The most beautiful lives are the ones we invent,” reflects an elderly Albert Dehousse (Mathieu Kassovitz / Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he looks back on the lives he’s led. Dehousse real biography is a mediocre childhood overseen by his mother in a small French town and filled with unrealized dreams of adventure and heroism. The young lad is devastated to learn that his father was not the WWI hero his mother claimed. Worse still, his status as the only son of a war widow exempts him from WWII service. His mother collaborates, his friends never invite him to help the resistance and his time is spent idly observing the war. But he learns to lie, wooing a beautiful local by masquerading as a writer. In reality, he transcribes his favorite novels at night and reads them to her in the afternoon as if they were his own.

One day the war is over. That’s when Albert Dehousse decides to retroactively join the French Resistance and become “A Self Made Hero” (1996).

His turning point comes when he breaks off his former life just after the armistice and heads to Paris. There he meticulously learns everything he might need to rewrite history. He insinuates himself into a veterans society and his encyclopedic knowledge of major and minor resistance figures combined with his non-specific affiliation to any particular political faction makes him a popular consultant with top officials. Soon he’s given a lieutenant-colonel post rooting out former collaborators who’ve assumed false identities in Germany. Unsurprisingly, he’s an ace at his job, but his ever thickening web of lies and the responsibility of executing men not unlike himself begins to fray his psyche.

Dehousse is a fascinating character and the backbone of “A Self Made Hero.” He’s a dreamer, not naturally gifted, and a boy who desperately wants a chance to prove himself. It’s questionable whether Albert is deprived of his chance, or simply lacks the bravery and initiative to create an opportunity. He gradually does become intelligent, cultured, witty, charismatic and inspiring, everything he ever hoped to be, but all in the service of a colossal lie. Because the truth is not on his side, he has to work twice as hard as the honest men who come to respect him. We see Albert endlessly rehearsing facts, quips and anecdotes in front of his mirror, many stolen from men he admires and overhears. In a lovely throwaway shot near the end of the film we see one of Albert’s insecure subordinates imitating him.

Novelist Jean-Francois Deniau, director Jacques Audiard and actor Albert Dehousse all work together to make Albert a relatively sympathetic, yet conniving anti-hero. He’s part pathetic delusional and part mastermind conman, but his face always wears a level of pleasant innocence that makes us want to believe him. We cheer for his rise to fame and power, yet it’s somehow sad, since his ability to fool (almost) everyone, only allows himself to continue fooling himself for long enough to become addicted. When his world starts to fall apart, as inevitably it must, he ends up charged with an ironically lesser crime. The film’s sardonic ending montage gives us a dizzying glimpse of the rest of Dehousse’s life, one even more cynical and still wholly uncured.

Jacques Audiard shows a talent for creating historical atmosphere without drawing attention to it. The audience is invited to get lost in Albert’s opportunistic and frequently nerve-wracking ascent, rather than the period detail. The nostalgic music by Alexandre Desplat and the bright cinematography by Jean-Marc Fabre help create an alluring tone for the film, that recedes easily into the background at the needs of the story and declines to dictate our emotions.

Audiard decides to use a documentary-type framing device, chronicling the real life of Albert Dehousse from a modern perspective. It contrasts nicely with the wartime backdrop and makes the brilliant conclusion possible, but the interspersed contemporary commentary and interviews are a little underdeveloped and don’t really add much information. The wonderful Jean-Louis Trintignant (“The Conformist,” “Death Laid an Egg,” “Red”) is cast as the surviving now-aged Albert , but his acting talent is underexploited and his recognizability compromises any intended illusion that the story is based in fact (a thematic and clever device, nonetheless).

“A Self Made Hero” manages to be strangely funny and yet strangely stirring, thrilling, well-made and well-acted throughout. It’s not quite daring, but it’s still a trenchant examination of the flexibility of history and biography when they’re put in the fallible hands of desires, dreams, memories and assumptions. The film shares with “Mother Night” (1996) and “The Memory Thief” (2007) a lesson about the temptations of fictional identities.

Mathieu Kassovitz likely benefits from having been on both sides of the camera (his work includes directing “Hate” (1995) and appearing in “Amelie” (2001)) and turns in a performance that really should have won something. This was one of Jacques Audiard first films, who is perhaps best known for his Cesar-sweeping “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” (2005) (I like “A Self Made Hero” better). His eagerly-anticipated latest film “A Prophet” (2009) won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes this year, and will hopefully get released soon.

Walrus Rating: 9.0

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