“Barocco” is a mild, minor, early film (from 1977) by Andre Techine that aspires to recreate the visceral power of the 1940s Hollywood film noir but only creates a sense of light tedium. Long unavailable, its belated DVD debut offers a reminder that not every French film is a classic.
The plot is certainly intriguing: a washed-up boxer, at the urging of his prostitute girlfriend, agrees to take a large sum of money by making the phony claim that he is the gay lover of a prominent politician who is in the middle of an intense re-election campaign. After taking the money, however, the boxer reneges on the deal and is fatally hunted down by the mob behind the scheme. The cash, however, has been stashed away by his girlfriend and she is tracked down by the assassin who plugged the boxer. This shady lady, however, refuses to divulge where she has placed the money and the assassin, unable to complete his assignment, finds himself being hidden by this woman when his mobster comrades come looking for him.
The film has a curious twist by casting a young Gerard Depardieu as both the boxer and the assassin. The fact the two characters are identical is oddly lost on everyone in the film and it turns “Barocco” into a fairly illogical exercise (especially when the boxer’s girlfriend has to give the police sketch artist a description of the killer, which results in a Al Hirshfeld-style caricature of Depardieu).
Depardieu’s fans, who’ve witnessed the actor get fat and lethargic in recent years, will be pleasantly surprised to see him in “Barocco,” when he was still dark-haired and his physique was lean and strong enough for him to pose in boxing trunks. Unfortunately, his acting here is among the weakest in his career: synthetic when he is supposed to be subtle and hammy when he is supposed to be heroic. It is hard to imagine what Techine was telling him to do on camera, but here he seems totally lost and misdirected.
Equally appalling are the performances by Isabelle Adjani as the boxer’s girl and Marie-France Pisier as her hooker best friend. Both women give flat, shrill, one-dimensional performances that are eons away from the Academy Award-nominated work they respectively created prior to “Barocco” in “The Story of Adele H.” and “Cousin Cousine.” Rather than recall the tough-as-nails women of film noir glory days, the women instead seem petulant and obnoxious–to the point that one has to wonder why a film would be made focusing on them. The rest of the acting ranges from unmemorable to simply awful, with the cast inventing caricatures instead of developing genuine characters. Most of the actors deliver their lines via snarling, as if directed to pretend they were lions and tigers rather than people.
Perhaps Techine, who was still relatively early in his career, had difficulty exacting fully realized performances from his actors. He certainly knew how to stage visually impressive sequences (the boxer’s murder in front of the passengers of an arriving train, the casual torture of a gangster in a deserted sauna), but “Barocco” lacks the gritty emotional gut-punch that made the classic film noir treasures so memorable. Creative camera angles and sharp art direction can only take a film so far; cardboard acting can kill a film in minutes, and the poorly-performed “Barocco” dies on screen long before the end credits appear.