“13 (Tzameti)” is one of those films that is seductive in its unabashed love of the past. Shot in black and white and containing a plot that could be found in a Hitchcock notebook, this French film’s gleefulness in living in that world is apparent and engaging. The problem is, however, that it doesn’t get to live in that world as successfully as one would hope, but instead is a common visitor with flashes of genius.
The film tells the story of a young roofer, Sébastien (George Babluani), who is trying to provide for his extended family while working like a dog for continually delayed wages. When his current client dies of a drug overdose, he is informed that he will not be paid to finish the job. As he hadn’t really been getting paid to begin with, the blow is so devastating that he does something outside of himself and steals a letter intended for the dead client. Inside the letter is a train ticket and a pre-paid hotel room, and Sébastien runs off with the opportunity.
What then follows is a descent into the darker aspects of entertainment as Sébastien finds himself involved in a group of 13 individuals picked to play a tweaked version of Russian roulette while being bet on and sponsored (hence the hotel room, train ticket and a piece of the winnings) by the upper crust. Who survives? When will the police, who have been following Sébastien, step in?
The premise is enticing to the point that, even having seen the movie and feeling the way I do about the final product (keep reading), I still find it interesting. The problem is the execution. The opening scenes are laboriously slow. You’re very well informed that Sébastien is poor, that his client is having some issues and that the police are staking out the entire situaion. In fact, the prevalence of the police at the beginning is distracting when, suddenly, they’re out of the picture for most of the time once Sébastien finds his way to the group of 13.
That is where the movie shines, however. As round after round of Russian roulette is played with decreasing participants and increasing bullets, the film moves along at a brisk pace, making one wonder why we had to be so slow in the beginning when the stride has officially been found and executed, the full tension and suspense hinted at earlier fully realized? After this second act is completed, and we’re moving through the story for the final resolution, once again the film becomes slow (and look, the police are back). The end is pretty well-telegraphed, but on a philosophical level understandable (how can one lose so much innocence and still be expected to survive on this planet).
In the end, “13 (Tzameti)” is a film with brief sections of beauty and genius, a brilliant premise but an overall execution that leaves the parts adding up to such a lesser sum than you would expect. I wonder what Hitchcock would’ve done with this film, had he written it?
Unfortunately, the potential is so strong that my negativity is mostly out of an unfair comparison to one of the greatest filmmakers in history, but at the same time, if you’re going to run in that type of race, voluntarily or no, you better be prepared to have it pointed out when you fall behind.