We open our eyes as a welder’s mask descends, and we are thinking of a countdown. Down to what, we don’t know, but the pungent brimstone smell triggers a subterranean childhood fear of open flames while we are thinking, “10 … 9 … 8 …”–and the tension is unbearable. We can feel our heartbeat almost choking off our admittedly extremely witty thoughts. It turns out we’re robbing a bank. We don’t actually know how to do it. And then, as with all artistic endeavors, we do it anyway.
Pity the poor bank robber who, having achieved his share of loot, finds that the love of his father is still locked away in the impregnable vault of his father’s not-so–paternal heart. Such is the premise of past master Raymond Lemoin’s new verite, Assaut sur l’Univers (Assault on the Universe), whose title suggests both infinite struggle and inevitable outcome. It also suggests a dollop of ego as powerful as a drill that can pierce steel.
When verite made its debut, audiences reacted with a different panic than did the witnesses to the Lumieres’ first on-film train pulling into the first on-bedsheet station in 1895. That panic was not so much one of bourgeois horror as of adrenaline. Nonetheless, we still pity those antique crowds for believing they were actually in contact with Gare de La Ciotat. The poor souls were reacting to what only one sense was telling them. The addition of sound in the 1920s proved to be, in careful hands, an extension of the diegetic effect–immersion in the narrative. Verite, of course, brings closure to diegesis by placing the audience directly into the consciousness of the protagonist. We are allowed for the first time an all-access pass to all the senses as well as all the perceptions, prejudices, and narrative ticker tape that make up a worldview.
In other words, in lesser hands verite is exactly what a gentle soul like Eckhart Tolle wishes we would just forever silence. I’m afraid his first assault would have to be against Assaut sur l’Univers, and he might have to take a number. For Lemoin has been called a genius, and there are two ways to appear a genius: One is to be a genius and hope people notice. The other is to show con-tempt, which people will mistake for genius. Lemoin has made his choice.
It’s a pity (there’s that word again), because the form itself leans other-wise, favoring compassion. Back when verites were still only a few seconds long, feeling Kanye West simply scratch his wrist, bust with pleasure at seeing a butterfly, and then repeat the word “truffle” to himself a couple of times left us in double awe: the thrill of experiencing another person’s thoughts multiplied a thousandfold by realizing–and here comes the bourgeois horror–that Kanye actually is a genius.
Lemoin, however, is on a hunt far murkier than one for truffles. It is a tricky thing with verite, for we should lose ourselves in our protagonist’s sensorium and forget that what we’re seeing is actually a studio creation, meticulously planned and executed. In his earlier, more fanciful works (who can forget Lemoin’s Prufrock sur la Plage, where he played a timid insurance adjuster among mermaids?), artifice worked in his favor. But now, trousers no longer rolled, Lemoin aims to make a statement about family.
To ensure we don’t miss his intentions, Assaut features, in various bit parts, Lemoin’s own mother and brother, even the family dog. The canine Lemoin comes off the best, as she is a compellingly alert Malinois whose fur feels as soft as velvet. Jerome Lemoin, the artist’s father, plays bank robber pere and comes off less well when he announces, “I think I’ll kick this dog for no reason. Or rather for the same reason I’m not fond of you.” One might say this feels wooden. Were such dialog exchanged between Geppetto and his son, we would call it on the nose.
The overall production is fine enough, with the usual technical wizardry that allows us to experience the sickly, swamped feeling of a few betrayals, the rising anger of vengeance, the (spoiler alert) shotgun blast that may or may not end our story. But I found myself proceeding with impatience.
When verite was developed, its proponents went so far as to argue it would end war. For if you didn’t just walk a mile in someone else’s moccasins but instead wore the whole outfit, wouldn’t this be the soul of empathy? If you actually thought another’s thoughts, wouldn’t you finally throw off 300 years of Enlightenment and genuinely know another person?
Of course, the ugly flip side of knowing a person is, well, knowing a person. The division between hating the art and hating the artist has dissolved. I return from his verite to tell you this truth: Lemoin turns out to be a vapid, hollow, despicable, sordid, corrupt, monumentally boneheaded self-admirer. This is a man who thinks “I am a genius” when he manages to find a good parking space.
If you are still unconvinced about his reprehensible nature, let me just say that Lemoin is distracted during the heist itself by thoughts of how handsome he will look in the security footage. He smells of Paco Rabanne in a way we’re supposed to enjoy. In celebration of victory, his gang sabers a bottle labeled as a 1996 Bollinger Vieilles Vignes Francaises Blanc de Noirs, and yet I could tell the taste was the vastly inferior Roederer Estate NV. This wasn’t naivete on the character’s part but the artist assuming the audience wouldn’t know the telltale pucker of domestic Pinot. Contempt? Or was the prop master Rudy Kurniawan?
The last 10 minutes of delirium, post-shotgun-blast, consists of -Lemoin misremembering quotations from existentialist philosophers (his repeated mangling of Boris Vian is particularly vivid) followed by a call for artists to unite under the tricolor. It’s absurd and not intentionally so: Assaut sur l’Univers, though the title would suggest otherwise, was filmed in LA’s Canoga Park, the hometown of Raymond Lemoin, who is not French.
In Elevator to the Gallows, Louis Malle was able to put us in the psyches of two lovers on the lam, using just two senses. Lemoin is unable to make us care about the affair one man has with himself, not even with all five senses and the narrative avalanche that is human consciousness. The sorrow I feel at his failure is exceeded only by, yes, the pity. He should take solace in the artistic ideals of the republic to which he wishes he belonged: liberte, egalite, verite.
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Tales From an Uncertain Future