Can cold hard cash turn a big-hearted family man into a detached and calculating hit man? That’s the intriguing question behind Through the Air (La Resistance de l’air), the feature debut of French-Canadian director Fred Grivois. Scripted by Noe Debre and Thomas Bidegain, the successful tandem behind the screenplays of recent Palme d’Or winner Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone, Dheepan), this sleek-looking drama stars Reda Kateb as an Average French Joe with money problems whose shooting-range prowess attracts the attention of some very unsavory Belgians who make him an offer he should have refused but, of course, doesn’t.
Though the set-up is compelling, Grivois struggles to accommodate the necessary tonal shifts for a story as complex as this one, with the narrative constantly oscillating between fraught domestic drama and noirish crime thriller, and the necessary psychological fallout of the clash between the two somewhat lost in the process. That said, this June 17 local release should see some box-office and festival action on the strength of its screenwriting duo and cast, which also includes Ludivine Sagnier and a clean-shaven Tcheky Karyo.
Struggles to hit the sweet spot.
The film’s opening shows an unnamed, bald-headed assailant (Patrice Guillain) chewing on a cookie in slow-motion while he waits inside a family’s home so he can shoot the paterfamilias in front of his wife and kids when they all return. Like the rest of the film, shot by ace Belgian DP Glynn Speeckaert, the sequence has a drained color palette and is captured with a sleekly mobile camera, offering not only a taste of what’s to come visually and narratively but at the same time confirming that Grivois, a title designer on Audiard’s films, knows his way around the trappings of the genre.
The story proper kicks off when Vincent (Kateb) and Delphine (Sagnier) examine the place where their new home will be constructed for themselves and their preteen daughter, Alexia (Blanche Hemada Costoso). Trouble’s already on the horizon as the planned works won’t be carried out until Vincent coughs up the necessary dough, which he doesn’t really have. To blow off steam, his only way of relaxing is at the firing range, where he’s capable of acts of fierce concentration. While it’s never clear what attracted Vincent to long-range shooting in the first place or why he continues to practice what must be an expensive hobby if he’s in financial dire straits, the protagonist does quickly emerge as the best marksman at the club.
But life at home isn’t exactly a series of bullseyes, with Delphine constantly comparing her life to that of her sister (Sylvie Degryse), who married a rich dentist, while Vincent is forced to take in his ailing father (Karyo), a womanizing booze hound who’s now a former shadow of himself. This hasn’t stopped the old man from looking down on his son, however, who seems to have the perfect family except for one crucial fact: he doesn’t get laid. With their dream home project on hold, Dad in Alexia’s room and the little girl now sleeping right next to her parents, there are plenty of practical reasons why Vincent’s life has become celibate — though the screenplay mostly avoids addressing any underlying psychological reasons or possible consequences (Audiard would have had a field day with this screenplay, though he might’ve found the subject too small). Instead, there’s a preference for foregrounding action over emotion, hoping the actors will be able to fill in the rest; especially in the plentiful moments the camera moves in for a closeup.
Kateb had his breakthrough year just last year with leading roles in Cannes titles Hippocrates and Insecure (Qui Vive) and Venice competition entry Far From Men, opposite Viggo Mortensen, and a supporting role as the cab driver in Ryan Gosling’s Lost River. He’s an actor of fierce intelligence who here constantly underplays Vincent’s emotional crossroads and moments of tension, as if his character keeps retreating into the Zen-like state he assumes before taking each shot. It’s a choice that makes sense on paper but never quite works in reality, as the screenplay already lacks built-in moments of psychological insight and Kateb’s understated work further robs the drama of some of its necessary highs and lows. But the film’s oddly structured screenplay is the main culprit here; a crucial confession by Vincent, for example, seems to have no real psychological reverberations for him or anyone around him, though it occurs with still 25 minutes on the clock.
Opposite Kateb, Sagnier is stuck in a thankless wife-of-the-lead role she could do in her sleep, with Delphine only really making an impression in an odd moment, late into the film, in which the perspective suddenly shifts to somewhere much closer to her character. Otherwise, she’s one of several women the male characters constantly eye up, especially after their machismo’s been given a shot of testosterone after a round of gun fire, such as in a particularly delirious scene involving a piglet in the woods. In a frequently boisterous, heavily accented French-language supporting role, Flemish actor Johan Heldenbergh (The Broken Circle Breakdown) impresses as a shady character who’s very good at articulating what he wants without ever outright saying it. Indeed, his dialogue and I-own-this-place swagger are a clear highlight, making it entirely credible someone like Vincent would fall for his machinations.
The film’s atmosphere is suitably dark, damp and gritty, even when the action momentarily takes the protagonist to Italy for a job. And like Vincent, the score, by Franco-Russian brothers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine, is mostly unassuming, suggesting something of the characters’ unease and a little of the tension, though the moments of marksmanship that punctuate the film are not treated as thriller-like set pieces so much as clinical games that might end up being deadly.
Production companies: Iconoclast, Gaumont
Cast: Reda Kateb, Ludivine Sagnier, Tcheky Karyo, Johan Heldenbergh, Pascal Demolon, Blanche Hemada Costoso, Laure De Clermont, Sylvie Degryse, Patrice Guillain
Director: Fred Grivois
Screenplay: Noe Debre, Thomas Bidegain
Producers: Sidonie Dumas, Charles-Marie Anthonioz, Mourad Belkeddar, Jean Duhamel
Director of photography: Glynn Speeckaert
Production designer: Pierre Pell
Costume designer: Nathalie Raoul
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
Sales: Gaumont International
No rating, 98 minutes