As was the case with the 19th century Eastern European fantasy “Le Marais” and the absurd B-movie homage “Truffe”, Kim Nguyen‘s latest feature is visually remarkable, proving furthermore that he’s one of the most gifted directors working in Québec nowadays. Alas, “La Cité” also reminds us that as a writer, Nguyen leaves much to be desired. It’s one of the mysteries of our local cinema how so many filmmakers seem convinced that it ain’t enough to just display their mise en scène skills, they also have to be penning their own screenplays, even though it’s clearly not their forte. Whereas in the US, guys like Spielberg and Scorsese have no problem translating other people’s words into images, trusting that their vision as auteurs will shine through nonetheless.
“La Cité” takes place in 1885, in an ominous ancient city surrounded by mountains and desert lands, where Maxime Vincent (Jean-Marc Barr), a doctor who’s aching to return home after years spent watching men get injured and killed on battlefields in North Africa, will find himself stuck for who knows how long because of the tensions between the native Herenites and the French colonial authorities, which will become exacerbated after a bubonic plague outbreak.
Between its premise’s inherent dramatic potential and its amazing setting, Nguyen’s film should be a gripping, fascinating watch. Alas, events are either rushed or needlessly stretched out, the themes and characters are developed only through tacked-on expositional dialogue, and while various elements recall Camus’ “La Peste” or classic films such as “Casablanca”, these nods (intentional or not) always remain inconsequential. The same goes for the way it purposefully sets itself up as an allegory for the Israel-Palestine situation and other Middle Eastern conflicts, current or ancient.
All the same, “La Cité” might still have worked as an exercise in style or as an unassuming homage to old-fashioned adventure tales. But while the style does seem influenced by bandes dessinées à la “Tintin” and the same serials that inspired the “Indiana Jones” flicks, the movie is lacking any sense of humor, wonder or excitement.
I really hate to have to do this again, because I truly believe Kim Nguyen is one of our most interesting filmmakers. Given the right material, or at least if he accepted to collaborate with an established screenwriter to properly flesh out his ideas, I’m sure he could deliver a great picture. In all three of his features, there are memorable sights, effective little individual moments and solid performances (here, beside Barr, Claude Legault also does good work, though his accent is shaky). But the storytelling just doesn’t cut it and we never really care about the characters. It’s a shame, it really is.