Automne by Ra'up Mcgee
If I was a young filmmaker preparing my very first feature, I’d probably choose an easier path than the one Ra’up McGee chose. An American who grew up loving French cinema, McGee spent several years in Paris pitching his film to a couple hundred film production companies, contacting actors on his own, and basically doing all of the prep work for Automne –‘ all without knowing a single bit of French. If nothing else, Automne is fascinating for that reason alone, and the fact that it’s a pretty decent, if somewhat flawed movie in its own right makes McGee’s effort all the more impressive.
Jean-Pierre (played with cool to spare by Laurent Lucas) is a small-time hitman for Noel, an older gangster who runs a restaurant as a front. As is the case with most of these sorts of movies, Jean-Pierre has grown to dislike his job, or rather, he’s become scared of his own ambivalence. And the fact that he constantly has to off people in the woods where he suffered a fairly traumatic event as a child makes the job even more unpalatable.
While preparing for his latest (and last) job, he runs into Michelle (Iréne Jacob, Three Colors: Red and The Double Life Of Veronique), a childhood friend whom he hasn’t seen in a long time, and the two begin seeing each other. Rounding out the trio of friends is Andre, a down-on-his-luck cab driver who can’t seem to curb his gambling habit.
When Jean-Pierre attacks a man who tried to rape Michelle (who delivers handmade bombs to small-time crooks in exchance for English lessons), he sets in motion a series of events that draws the three childhood friends into a growing conflict between Noel and a new gang led by the vicious Claude. Both parties are searching for a briefcase that Michelle has come to possess through somewhat uncertain means. Jean-Pierre and Michelle go on the lam, trying to stay one step ahead of everyone while both Noel and Claude try to use Andre to bring them in. As can be expected, loyalties become confused, double-crosses are double-crossed, and characters aren’t always what they seem.
From a technical standpoint, McGee nails everything. Like the classic French crime thrillers (think Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, such as Le Cercle Rouge), Automne exudes coolness and atmosphere. As the title might imply, the film is set in the fall — the skies are always overcast, the streets always filled with fog, and the tone is always cool and haunting. Likewise, the characters seem to float through this like ghosts, until the inevitable violent confrontations take place. The cinematography is spot on and McGee’s camera moves with the calm, cool assurance of a pro.
However, the film feels almost too technical, as if McGee wanted to make sure he nailed every single detail just right, rather than let his film breathe a little bit. Perhaps this was due to the language barrier; in the Q&A session following the film, McGee stated that because of the barrier, very little improv was done with the storyline, which could explain some of the rigidity.
Whatever the case, the film ultimately feels like something’s missing, something that could have elevated it beyond merely a solid film. The reveals and double-crosses never seem to pack the oomph necessary, nor do we ever really get too drawn into the characters’ plight. And the one relationship in the film, Jean-Pierre and Michelle’s is as cool as an autumn day, with little passion or sensuality to make us feel as if anything’s at stake for them. And though the film explores themes of loyalty and revenge, of how far you’d be willing to go for power or money, the themes never fully resonate as well as they could. Like the tone of the film, my reaction was calm and subdued.
All of which is to say that the film largely succeeds as an exercise in style, and McGee proves throughout the film that he has that aspect down. Hopefully, now that he’s done paying homage to the films of his past, he can move on to more original material. He certainly has the skills (and the tenacity) to do so.