‘The Night Watchman’ (‘Jamais de la vie’): Film Review

Olivier Gourmet (“The French Minister”) headlines writer-director Pierre Jolivet’s thriller

Over the course of two decades, Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet has built a career playing sweaty, stressed-out average Joes who look like they’re just a few heartbeats away from a massive coronary. These are not calm or easily contented people, as evidenced by the various working and middle-class worrywarts he’s portrayed in nearly every Dardennes Brothers film since starring in their debut, La Promesse, back in 1996. If somebody were to program a retrospective of his work – which includes over ninety features and TV movies – it should be entitled “Olivier Gourmet: High Anxiety.”

The latest Gourmetian character to come along is Franck, a solitary boozehound who works the night shift guarding a discount superstore on the outskirts of Paris, and whose life quickly unravels when he realizes that his colleagues are planning to heist the place. Franck cuts a compelling figure in the otherwise heavy-handed French thriller The Night Watchman (Jamais de la vie), which offers up an intriguing set-up but wallows too much in its own social misery, never quite delivering on the suspense side. Still, a strong lead turn and distinctive setting could give it a boost outside Francophone markets, with the actor adding yet another anxious notch to his belt.

The Bottom Line

A downbeat, heavy-handed social thriller with a gripping lead turn

Written and directed by Pierre Jolivet – who’s made a dozen crime-related movies after co-scripting Luc Besson’s first two features – the story begins as a downbeat study of Franck’s woebegone life, with tons of exposition explaining: (1) how he used to be a proud unionized worker before the factory closed, (2) how his retirement benefits are inadequate despite the help of a social worker/potential love interest (Valerie Bonneton); (3) how the friendly African guard (Marc Zinga) he works with is in some sort of trouble, and (4) how he winds up with a gun on his hands after snatching it away from the erratic jealous boyfriend of his sister (Julie Ferrier).

Add to all that the fact that Franck is an alcoholic, lives in the most graffiti-filled housing project in the nation, drives a beat-up old station wagon and also has a terrible toothache – though he soon solves that problem by ripping the defective molar out with his own bare hands – and you can sort of understand why he’s willing to do something desperate. In this case, it’s following a mysterious SUV that’s been hanging around the parking lot, until he realizes that the driver is linked to someone from his company involved in a potential robbery.

The filmmakers spend most of the movie justifying Franck’s ultimate deed, but in the end he remains a fairly obtuse character – much more a product of his environment than a fully formed individual. Jolivet seems overtly concerned with pointing out what a terrible socio-economic position the man (and every single person he comes across) finds himself in, while the grim banlieue setting and constant gray skies only underscore the moroseness. It’s as if the director were making a campaign film for the Never Live In France party, with planes constantly departing from nearby Charles de Gaulle airport serving as a reminder that you should get the hell out of there fast.

Subtlety is definitely not the strong point here, even if the slick camerawork by Jerome Almeras (In the House) make all the ugliness look lovely. No, what really makes the film work – if it works at all – is Gourmet’s viscerally distraught performance, with the actor wandering the urban landscape like a poster boy for Thoreau’s “quiet desperation” quote. He can accomplish in a few words what it takes others whole movies to get across: Just witness the moment where Franck orders a triple whiskey during a night out in Paris. The way he smiles at the waitress, the combination of pride and deep torment, is something to be seen. He can do so much with so little, but Gourmet is never frugal.

Production companies: 2.4.7. Films, France 3 Cinema, Panache Productions, La Cie Cinematographique
Cast: Olivier Gourmet, Valerie Bonneton, Marc Zinga, Thierry Hancisse, Julie Ferrier
Director: Pierre Jolivet
Screenwriter: Pierre Jolivet, in collaboration with Simon Michael, Simon Moutairo
Producers: Marc-Antoine Robert, Xavier Rigualt
Director of photography: Jerome Almeras
Production designer: Emile Ghigo
Costume designer: Bethasbee Dreyfus
Editor: Yves Dechamps
Composers: Sacha Sieff, Adrien Jolivet
Casting director: Michael Laguens
International sales: Indie Sales

No rating, 95 minutes