‘Sky’: TIFF Review

Diane Kruger, Lena Dunham and Norman Reedus star in Fabienne Berthaud’s drama about a French woman who strikes out on her own in the American West.

Following Bruno Dumont (Twentynine Palms) and Guillaume Nicloux (Valley of Love), Fabienne Berthaud is the latest French director to venture into that cliché-prone cinematic territory known as the American West. Her new movie, Sky, stars Diane Kruger as Romy, a Parisian who ditches her lout of a husband while on vacation, setting out alone across Nevada and California, the wind in her hair and freedom on her mind — until she meets another man, prompting her to forget all about her plans for independence and self-actualization. The bizarre anti-feminist subtext wouldn’t be troubling if the film made Romy’s need for male company a compelling part of her character. But Sky is an erratic and unsatisfying blend of road movie and “women’s picture,” in which Berthaud’s competent craftsmanship can’t make up for her shakily conceived story.

The presence of performers like Kruger, The Walking Dead’s Norman Reedus as her love interest and Lena Dunham in a tiny role as a Daisy Duke-wearing, white-trashy mother of many may boost distribution prospects. Still, interest is likely to be limited.

The Bottom Line

A road movie as flaky and erratic as its heroine.

Sky opens with Romy and Richard (Gilles Lellouche) cruising around the desert in a convertible. It doesn’t take long to realize Richard is bad news: As if snapping “No ice!” at a waitress who brings him ice water wasn’t hint enough, soon he’s chatting up a couple of blondes at a bar (in front of his wife), cracking cruel jokes about Romy’s miscarriages and attempting to rape her as she sleeps in their motel room. What a guy!

Romy gives Richard one good whack on the head and takes off in the middle of the night. With her skinny jeans and chic brown leather bag, she’s a conspicuous outsider — yet she also seems alive to her surroundings, and you hold out hope, in these early scenes, that Berthaud has some surprises in store for her. Alas, much of Sky plays like a catalogue of Americana as filtered through the rather hazy gaze of a half-awake protagonist. On a scene-to-scene basis, the film (written by Berthaud with Pascal Arnold) isn’t bad, per se; it’s just lacking in intensity, insight or — most fatally for a film about a woman unmoored in a strange land — any real sense of discovery.

Among those Romy meets on her travels are a chivalrous, mustachioed detective (Kruger’s real-life love, Joshua Jackson); a Latino trucker (Lou Diamond Phillips, whose part must be languishing somewhere on the cutting room floor); a few wise Native Americans (including the radiant Q’orianka Kilcher); and an aging Vegas bombshell (Laurene Landon), whose job consists of strutting around with Elvis impersonators while dressed in a sexy blue bunny outfit. (She doesn’t get much screen time, but Landon registers vividly enough to make you wish the entire movie were about her.)

The most consequential of Romy’s encounters is with Diego (Reedus), a sleepy-eyed park ranger who sweeps our heroine off her feet with his taciturn charm, tattoos and hard-drinking, commitment-phobic ways. Before long, she’s doing his dishes and feeding his iguana (no pun there) at his Barstow, California, home. It’s a corny role — a Harlequin romance-like vision of the brooding American manly man — but Reedus, part sarcasm, part sweetness, all sex appeal, just about walks off with the movie.

That is until Dunham shows up as Billie, Diego’s sister-in-law, a smiling, slovenly woman with too many kids and not enough teeth. The character is a walking punchline and Berthaud does her no favors, shooting her at unflattering angles and feeding her dumb things to say and do. Still, Dunham’s unsinkable charisma gives the movie a much-needed, if fleeting, boost, and there’s a sense of deflation when Sky drops her and devolves into disease-of-the-week melodrama in its final act.

Kruger can be good in strongly defined roles (see her movie-star-turned-spy in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds or her imperious Marie Antoinette in Benoit Jacquot’s Farewell, My Queen), and though she projects the right mix of grit and fragility here, Berthaud doesn’t make things easy for her. Romy is a hazily written character, and Kruger is not a resourceful enough actress to wring much sense from her contradictions and inconsistencies — nor is she sufficiently expressive to justify all the close-ups Berthaud (who also cast Kruger as the lead in her previous two films, Lily Sometimes and Frankie) lavishes on her.

The director and her dp, Nathalie Durand, give the film a suitably grubby look without shortchanging the beauty of either the natural scenery or the leading lady. The settings, from road-stop diners to honkytonk bars and sterile, poorly lit police stations, while prototypical, feel far more authentic than the emotional journey at the center of the film.

Production companies: Le Bureau, Pandora Filmproduktion
Director: Fabienne Berthaud
Writers: Fabienne Berthaud, Pascal Arnold

Producers: Gabrielle Dumon, Bertrand Faivre
Co-producers: Claudia Steffen, Christoph Friedel, Gregoire Lassalle
Cast: Diane Kruger, Norman Reedus, Gilles Lellouche, Lena Dunham, Q’orianka Kilcher, Joshua Jackson
Director of photography: Nathalie Durand
Composer: Francois-Eudes Chanfrault
Editor: Pierre Haberer
Production designer: Christian Kastner
Sound: Jean-Yves Munch
Casting: Carla Hool

Not rated, 100 minutes