May 27, 2024

Kathryn Bigelow’s underappreciated “Strange Days” features a line that goes something like “The issue isn’t whether you’re paranoid. The issue is whether you’re paranoid enough.” Although that film is set in 1999, it’s an aphorism would work equally well in Stéphan Castang‘s fun, violent, high-concept “Vincent Must Die,” as a punchy summation of post-pandemic — rather than pre-millennial — nervousness and malaise. Who among us has not gazed in dismay at a world that’s not just increasingly bad-tempered, but seems to hold against each one of us some focused, individual grudge? The times have doubtless always been bad, but they hit (and hit and hit) differently now, like this time, it’s personal. 

Vincent (a terrific, cow-eyed Karim Leklou) is initially not paranoid enough/at all. A bit uninspired, perhaps. Low-level depressed, possibly. And carrying his inevitable thirtysomething disillusionment in a little schlub around the midriff, for sure. But not paranoid; he has no reason to be — he’s a standard guy, a regular mec, a graphic designer who wears T-shirts under his jackets, cycles to work each day and probably thinks about the Roman Empire once or twice a week. Which makes it all so much more perplexing when one day at work, an intern he barely knows comes to his desk for an expressionless moment, then proceeds to beat him viciously around the head with a laptop computer. 

His co-workers restrain the attacker, and soon Vincent’s back at his desk having promised his boss — who is also his ex-girlfriend but Vincent is like totally chill with that — not to press charges. A black eye blossoms, and a cut on his cheek bleeds a little, but otherwise no harm done. In fact, back at his apartment later as Vincent trawls Tinder, he snaps a selfie of his tough-guy injuries and slaps on a humblebrag hashtag. But all it takes is one dog to bite you and suddenly become the type of person who gets bitten by dogs, and so it goes for Vincent: All it takes is one intern to hit him with a laptop, for him to become the kind of guy that gets suddenly stabbed by a co-worker, pursued by a homeless man, menaced by a motorist and bitten, scratched and kicked by usually friendly neighborhood kids, in a blank-eyed frenzy.

While John Kaced’s excellent score adds a layer of pacy French electro cool, Vincent deduces that his attackers’ murderous impulses, which usually abate leaving them with no memory of the incident, are triggered by eye contact, a difficult-to-avoid fact of urban life. So first stopping by childhood home to pick up his vintage Peugeot, and mercifully not getting filicided by his affectionately irritated Dad (François Chattot) he decamps to his family’s remote vacation roost in the countryside, where he hopes to hole up in relative safety.  

There’s an arthousier version of Mathieu Naert’s screenplay where the curse, whether it’s a disease or a manifestation of a persecution complex so intense it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, remains Vincent’s alone to bear. But Castang loves genre and so before it becomes too abstract or thought-experiment-y, the story broadens, taking on shades of zombie horror, dystopian sci-fi, social-breakdown satire, romantic comedy. Vincent meets Joachim (Michaël Perez) who has the same condition and who alerts Vincent to an online community of similar individuals called The Sentinel. He tells him to get a dog, which Vincent does — a lovely gray bulldog who usefully emits a low squeaking growl whenever she senses a person nearby is about to turn aggressor. And just as the movie loses traction as an existential allegory to become a more straightforward survival thriller – which cues its darkest-grossest-funniest moment when Vincent fights a stranger in the putrid ooze from an overflowing septic tank — Castang throws in a little bit of heart, too, in the romance that evolves between Vincent and boat-dwelling diner waitress Margaux (Vimalas Pons).

Despite most of their relationship playing out with one or other handcuffed or blindfolded (one does wonder why Vincent doesn’t simply don a pair of dark glasses) it’s easy to root for these two to get it together. And once Vincent overcomes the initial challenge of convincing Margaux that he is not crazy — by triggering everyone shopping in a big-box hypermarket to become even more aggressive and dead-eyed than the patrons of Ikea on a regular Sunday — perhaps Vincent’s condition even helps the passion along. After all, there’s nothing like the fear that your lover might at any moment snap into a murderous amnesiac frenzy to accelerate the trust-bonding process, just as there’s nothing like the constant terror of violence to sharpen the senses and make one feel alive. Perhaps Vincent’s affliction will be the making of him, if it doesn’t kill him first. And even if it does, what was his complacent, deflating prior lifestyle if not a much slower, crueler death?

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