Cannes Review: “Oh Mercy! Fumbles Its Arthouse Murder Mystery

Oh Mercy Lea Seydoux in Arnaud Desplechin's "Oh Mercy!". (Cannes)

Arnaud Desplechin shifts gears with an all-too-straightforward cop drama mired in cliche.

This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

It’s always nice to see a director do something different than what they’re associated with, right? Arnaud Desplechin’s previous film, Ismael’s Ghosts, opened Cannes two years ago with a story of a widowed director who, while developing his next project, is visited by his dead wife’s specter. A decade prior he gave us A Christmas Tale, which, in over two and a half hours, followed a family and their swath of personal problems after the matriarch falls ill. Now comes Oh Mercy!, and it’s downright streamlined in comparison.

There’s no Russian doll structure, no sense of collision, no absurdism. It’s entirely grounded in reality with some blind attempts at sociopolitical commentary as well and, at just shy of two hours, passes as short for the French auteur. But while Desplechin’s repertoire may hit or miss depending on the viewer, there’s something to be said about his love of chaos. On paper, Oh Mercy! has just that: true crime, murder, gay intrigue, oh my! It sounds like a recipe for success, so why is it so hard to care? Let’s start with the suspects in front of the camera.

Roschdy Zem plays Daoud, a stoic police chief (because what other kind is there?) investigating the goings-on of the downtrodden winter scape of Roubaix. It’s a community of immigrants and the impoverished that seems to breed xenophobia and distrust. Daoud’s been through it all before. Arson, blow torches to the neck, shouting matches—they’re all the same at this point, and they’re all par for the course for. Well, that’s the case for him, as his straight-laced rookie, Louis (Antoine Reinartz), is much more eager to mop up ne’er-do-wells.

It may be nice in theory for a director to try something different, but it turns out to feel way too similar here.

The dynamic is tired from the jump, but the approach shows some potential. Oh Mercy! is entirely uninterested in how the newbie deals with having soot under his nails for the first time. It’s all about the jaded superior here, and this point of view provides for some perspective. But that, after all, would require some real stakes. Desplechin’s script makes feeble attempts to social commentary, but his framing view of Roubaix is too divorced from any sense justice. Amorality can be fascinating to deconstruct, but it wilts under the weight of the camera here.

Instead, the stakes themselves feel contrived, arising when the authorities discover the death of an 80-year-old woman. She’s been strangled to death and the punky Claude (Léa Seydoux) becomes a prime suspect alongside her girlfriend, Marie (Sara Forestier). Far removed from whatever spoiler hubbub has been surrounding Cannes lately, it’s safe to say that Claude is a major part of this development. Why? Because it’s Seydoux, of course, and thankfully Desplechin has enough sense to keep his most charismatic performer in the picture.

Elsewhere, he doesn’t try to subvert audience expectations as much as he does guide the viewer through a predestined outcome. The film just coasts along. The dialogue, for one, exists strictly on a plane similar to daytime television (well, maybe prime time at best). There’s little economic or social consequence to the picture, rendering the central conflict as little more than a puzzle to solve and dispose of, and even then, it isn’t too involving. There are no stakes, no real arcs.

Even the visuals—an area in which Desplechin and DP Irina Lubtchansky have shown themselves to at least have a palpable energy—are so po-faced that locations can be succinctly divided as inside (mahogany!) or outside (blue!). One could argue that’s the point, but this also reduces the film to homeostasis. Toss in one plot development and Oh Mercy! just keeps slogging forward.

Seydoux presents the ultimate pièce de résistance here with quiet tears to complement an otherwise sarcastic aura. She plays quite well off Forestier too, and their chemistry gives a nice push-pull to scenes that otherwise play like a CSI episode. It’s just too bad that her background is so entrenched in gender-based clichés. Even her most alluring reveals play with an obviousness, and it’s a shame too, given how often they verge on camp. It may be nice in theory for a director to try something different, but it turns out to feel way too similar here.

Oh Mercy! Trailer:

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