Saturday, May 24, 2008

Gangster, Gangster

Gangsta, gangsta!
It's not about a salary,
it's all about reality.

-- N.W.A., "Gangsta, Gangsta" (1989)

Toujours Rêvé d'être un Gangster (***1/2)
(Samuel Benchetrit, France, 2007, 113 mins.)

The array of bumblers at the heart of I Always Wanted to Be
a Gangster stand in opposition to the snap-brim sharpies play-
ed by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon in the 1960s. Those
Gallic gangsters had smarts and savoir faire; this group has a gift
for gab, and that's about it. The only similarity is that writer/dir-
ector Samuel Benchetrit (Janis and John) shot his heartfelt
valentine to the crime films of yore in luminous black and white.

From the moment the hapless Franck (Edouard Baer) steps out of his tiny motorcar wearing tights on his head, legs dangling down the back, it's clear he isn't cut out for the gangster life. Franck confirms that suspicion by walking into a signpost—after all, it's harder to see through tights than nylons.

So, he fails to rob the roadside diner in his sights, but along
the way, Franck meets beautiful robber-turned-waitress Sus-
ie (Anna Mouglalis, Merci Pour le Chocolat, Crime Novel).
As with some of the other characters, Benchetrit fills in her
back story with jaunty music and silent-movie title cards.

Their episode segues into three others, all revolving around
Susie's spacious diner and encompassing a gloomy teenager,
two kindly kidnappers, a couple of pop stars (Alain Bashung
and Arno as themselves), and five aging bank robbers plan-
ning a final heist (one of whom is played by Jean Rochefort).

Benchetrit's sophomore ef-
fort is that rare film that can
unite usually divisive movie
lovers, from fans of French
films noir to American com-
edy connoisseurs, with the
filmmaker taking his poker-
faced cues from everyone
from the Keystone Kops
to Jean-Pierre Melville by
way of Jim Jarmusch. The
title, incidentally, comes from Ray Liotta's wistful
line in Goodfellas, "As far back as I can remem-
ber, I always wanted to be a gangster."

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Endnote: Images from the British Film Institute, Britannica,
and the 2008 Sundance Film Festival, at which I Always Wan-
ted to Be a Gangster won the World Cinema Screenwriting
Award. A US release date hasn't yet been announced, but you can
soon catch Liotta as the ineffectual mayor in Battle in Seattle.

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