Oh Mercy! first look: police and poverty vie in a sombre French noir

Arnaud Desplechin looks into the past and out from the shadows in a dour new detective story, weaving a web of mystery and misery which doesn’t quite connect all the dots.

Elisabet Cabeza

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Sara Forestier as Marie and Léa Seydoux as Claude in Oh Mercy!

Sara Forestier as Marie and Léa Seydoux as Claude in Oh Mercy!

It’s Christmas Day, but the light that shines the brightest in the dimly lit streets of Roubaix – the town mentioned in the original French title of Arnaud Desplechin’s new film (Roubaix, une lumière) – is a burning car. There’s no festive joy and no revellers in the streets as a tired-looking detective, Captain Daoud (Roschdy Zem), patrols the town. Elsewhere, a Christmas meal ends with carving knives flying off the table and the police having to intervene. It’s going to be a bumpy night in Roubaix, though this is strictly routine from what we can gather in Oh Mercy! – which premiered in competition at Cannes this year. The next day, fresh cases are piling up at the office: the rape of a teenager, a missing 17-year-old and a case of arson.

Arnaud Desplechin sets this very sober policier in his home town, which – we are informed at the beginning – is currently the poorest commune in France, with 45 per cent of its population living under the threshold of poverty. The screenplay – co-written by Desplechin and Léa Mysius – is an adaptation of the documentary Roubaix, commissariat central by Mosco Boucault, turning this portrait of crimes, big and small, into a classic detective story. “Here,” says a note at the beginning of the film, “all the pitiful crimes are real,” yet they are steered into the familiar territory of fiction, specifically film noir, French and beyond (Desplechin claims Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man as a main reference).

The conflict in Oh Mercy! however, doesn’t depend so much on the false accusation of an innocent bystander but on the questions surrounding the gratuitous murder of an old lady, taking Desplechin’s film closer to another Hitchcock classic, Rope; a portrait of human nature gone wrong. This film’s scene of the crime isn’t a glamorous Manhattan apartment, though, but the dead end of a poor housing district in Roubaix. This is the area where the two female leads, Claude (Léa Seydoux) and her girlfriend Marie (Sara Forestier), live; it’s where the murder of their 83-year-old neighbour, Lucette, takes place; and it’s where the two young women are arrested and taken away to be questioned about the murder. Ironically, the street is called Rue des Vignes (Vine Street), evoking a more luminous and prosperous past for this northern French city. It’s a past that’s difficult to imagine given the bare, colourless vision of Roubaix in the film.

Antoine Reinartz as Louis and Roschdy Zem as Daoud

Antoine Reinartz as Louis and Roschdy Zem as Daoud

Desplechin evokes better days subtly when it comes to the stories behind the characters. Revisiting the past is a key theme in his filmography, often taking centre stage in earlier films like My Sex Life… Or How I Got Into An Argument, and is present again in My Golden Days and Ismael’s Ghosts, his last feature. We never get to know the victim, Lucette, but an old love letter read by Daoud while he conducts his investigation gives us a glimpse into her story and her youth. Nor do we get to know the exact details behind the detective’s story, but Oh Mercy! does make us wonder why his incarcerated nephew hates him, why the rest of his family migrated back to Algeria but he stayed behind, and why the only warmth in his house comes from a painting depicting a landscape of his homeland.

Zem’s quiet determination makes Daoud stand out as the upright, experienced cop in front of the quavering voice of new recruit Louis – played by Antoine Reinartz – who is as undisciplined as he is lacking in emotional intelligence. Zem’s performance is Desplechin’s best card to play, as he’s able to navigate the streets of Roubaix and get away with lines straight out of a classic noir. Daoud insists he can always tell if somebody is telling the truth or lying – hence, whether they are guilty or innocent.

Zem and Reinartz

Zem and Reinartz

This insight becomes particularly relevant when Claude and Marie are subjected to exhaustive questioning about the murder. With their versions of events colliding, Desplechin leaves us guessing who is telling the truth and wondering who is more convincing in their performance. As women who seem to have lost everything, including a sense of self, Seydoux and Forestier play the game confidently.

Appearances can be deceiving; “Your uncle was a prince”, Daoud tells a young girl who disrespectfully addresses her elder – an Algerian migrant like himself – as the soft-mannered old man looks on with a smile. The detective tells her that he met her uncle years ago when neither of them could go clubbing in Ostend because the signs on the doors read “No dogs, no Arabs”. In this moment, we can imagine the wise captain in his youth, as we do when he manages to briefly ride a race horse that he otherwise finds deeply baffling. There, he looks like a prince too.

The cracks in Daoud’s armour are something that might have been explored further, but unfortunately the film doesn’t dig any deeper. Neither does it give us enough context on the importance of rookie detective Louis and his pious inner monologues, moments that seem to belong elsewhere.

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