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Eldorado

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/14/09 11:44:37

"The road to nowhere."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Bouli Lanners has such a keen eye for visuals, the camera always placed just so in every shot, that it’s something of a drag to suggest his film “Eldorado” doesn’t really work. Technically, it’s a stunner - even his soundtrack picks are spot-on, scene after scene - but it’s also just all too emotionally off the mark. The story is a clutter of unwelcome quirks and left-field developments that make the great look of the thing not quite enough of a prize.

Belgian actor-turned-filmmaker Lanners writes, directs, and stars as Yvan, a doughy sad sack mechanic who specializes in vintage American cars. He returns home one night to find Elie (Fabrice Adde), a young junkie, hiding under his bed, a poorly planned result of a robbery gone wrong. Yvan’s in no mood to call the police, and eventually the two get to know each other just enough for the mechanic to offer to drive Elie across country, back home to his parents.

It’s clever enough when the two are still relative strangers. Lanners keeps the camera at a distance, and scenes roll on in a single take for an impressive amount of screen time. The film is peculiar, but not forcedly so, and we figure we might like to get to know these two scraggy sorts.

But then the screenplay decides it wants to turn them into a comedy duo, a sort of burnout Laurel and Hardy. And there’s plenty of mugging to go around, the most labored sequence involving Elie convincing Yvan to tie his hair in a contraption that will spring him awake if he falls asleep at the wheel. It’s all clumsy and flat, which makes it almost a relief when Lanners opts to swing the story back around to tragedy in its second half, both characters giving poorly timed revelations about their recent histories. (Lanners gives his character a somber backstory almost out of obligation. The film might’ve worked better without any excuse for Yvan’s poor behavior; as it is, we’re stuck with a half-hearted piece of schmaltz right in the middle of things.)

Sensing the need to be weird, Lanners then supplies us with a sort of exaggerated version of the usual eccentrics we often meet along the way in road movies. The duo meets a madman (Philippe Nahon) obsessed with death and convinced he can kill with a touch; is Lanners going for out-of-nowhere creepy or absurdly dark comedy here? (The scene works as neither.) Later, the stumble upon a nudist (Didier Toupy) who exists merely to wring laughs out of the sight of a naked old guy pushing a car. (He also sits in a chair labeled “Alain Delon,” a punchline whose sly cleverness croaks on arrival.)

There are scenes that work on their own, most effective being one between Yvan and Elie’s mother (Françoise Chichéry), who wait in uncomfortable silence while Elie and his father engage in an off-screen shouting match. Lanners gives us an aching close-up of the mother, who buries her heartbreak in front of this stranger (Chichéry, in her first screen role, is remarkable in the all-too-brief role), eventually reaching out for his hand in a bit of reflex. Small talk fills the void before and after, and we see that here is where Lanners should be placing his efforts, and not in drifting absurdist comedy.

But he backs away from such potential depth, turning back to the wackiness of the road. Rather than study his characters as genuine people, Lanners chooses to toss us a couple of sick-joke turns in the third act, sour twists he hopes to use to underline an ultimate nihilistic theme. But the turns aren’t earned, nor is the theme, and “Eldorado” winds up a pile of sometimes interesting, sometimes gracelessly kooky scenes that never connect.

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