Monday, January 23, 2023

Your Lying Eyes: Jacques Audiard's "A Self Made Hero"

As a doom laden masterpiece where a whisper can be deadly or the nod of a head betrays friendship, Jean Pierre Melville's  "Army of Shadows" is one of my favorite films. Applying the same fatalistic sense that imbues his crime thrillers, it's a film that paints the Resistance during French Occupation of World War II as a carousel of death slightly postponed in order for its men and women to grasp at heroics. It's sad, infuriating, calculated, and full of Melville's memorialized relics from his past.

All of this to say that Jacques Audiard's "A Self Made Hero" would make for an interesting double bill with Melville's film. A bitter character study about a man who worms his way into the upper echelon of French military immediately after the liberation, "A Self Made Hero" is just as calculated in the dynamics of how a lowly no one (a brilliant Matthieu Kassovitz) becomes an interloper through sheer determination. It's a film that seems to question just how good such a person could have been if they'd applied their talents to something worthwhile.

We first meet Kassovitz early in life during the war, unsure of what to do and working menial jobs with little direction. He claims to be a writer of romance novels, which attracts Yvette (Sandrine Kiberlain) and they end up marrying. It's only after finding out his in-laws were once tangentially involved with the French Resistance (as well as his own mother's political leanings) that he makes a rash decision and walks away from his provincial life. The only thing left of him is his bike on a railway platform.

Through sheer determination (memorizing the stories in numerous newspapers each day), he transforms into the fictional Albert Dehoussie. And like the cold mechanisms that chart the success and betrayals of the Resistance in "Army of Shadows", Audiard's film utilizes the same blueprint for Albert's cowardice. We're at once embarrassed for the way in which he liberally inserts himself in the circles of post-war government, and somehow charmed by his remarkable shape-shifting intelligence. As a cipher for modern politics (thinking of the whole George Santos parallels), "A Self Made Hero" was made 25 years ago, but its exploration of hollow representation feels more apt than ever. He gets free room and board by playing on the militarism of his ex-soldier landlord. He gleans all he can from the smooth operations of a self proclaimed spy (Albert Dupontel) who gives him, perhaps, the best advice of his career. To survive in 6 different cities, tell 6 different lies. Eventually, Albert becomes a top official routing out collaborators during the war.... a point not lost on Audiard and writer Alain de Henry as "A Self Made Hero" is essentially a film about the layers of deception that necessitate survival in a post war environment.

Adding a bit of comical complexity to the film, Audiard also inserts numerous fake current day interviews which comment on the Dehoussie affair, even going so far as to have the iconic Jean Louis Trigtignant playing the aged Albert with a wink and charm that only he could provide. It's fascinating to see theses fictional testimonies inserted as the men comment on Albert's exploits by showing the camera a prominent newspaper image, then deconstructing the deceit that Albert used to place himself there. It's a sharp deconstruction of his rise to power.... a mordant commentary on truth.... and a brilliant black comedy. And that's another essence to "A Self Made Hero". While being a repulsive main character, it's imminently funny. The fact that Albert ends up where he does with two women (one he scorned and another whose innocent love forced him to ultimately reconcile himself) is an embarrassing wealth of riches for such a mythological man. The fact that the film goes even further and shows Albert come out the other side with a reputation seemingly impertinent to the halls of politics is about as funny a comment on his life as anyone could fabricate.