FILM REVIEW: Willy The 1st (Willy 1er)

MyFrenchFilmFestival is taking place until the 19th February.

To celebrate, we’re reviewing some of the films nominated. First up, we have Joshua Moulinie’s take on Willy the 1st (Willy 1er)

French cinema has always been a benchmark for film as an art form. Often serving as the antithesis of Hollywood’s glitz and glamour it, it has held a well-deserved reputation as a film model based on expression over profits. In an era where Hollywood is – artistically speaking – almost entirely bankrupt, French cinema – derided by many in the contemporary landscape as ‘pretentious’ – is now more important than ever.

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Thus, it was with great excitement that I received an invitation from STORGY to cover My French Film Festival. I needed to know that the art house wasn’t dead. That, outside of Hollywood’s crushing capitalist weight, artistic cinema still had a home somewhere. Almost at random, I chose Willy The 1st, the feature-length debut of the shockingly young Boukherma brothers, featuring an almost unheard of cast – in particular an overweight unknown lead in Vannet – and, by the time the credits were rolling, I was more than satisfied with my choice.

The narrative is stripped-down, raw, organic, and extremely small-scale. Following the journey of the titular Willy (Vannet); socially awkward, potentially disabled, horrifically depressed and stubborn, Willy’s only friend in the world was his twin brother Michel. After Michel’s suicide, Willy decides to prove to his parents that he will not go the same way, and sets off to live in a local village, declaring he will do three things: ‘Get a flat, get a scooter, get some mates, and they can stuff off!’

What follows is a part-hilarious, part-depressing, entirely engaging little piece of independent cinema. Due to this stripped-down narrative, we have a story that, while not cinematically epic by any standards, is believable. The lack of complexity also allows the film to avoid one of cinema’s great pitfalls: the over-saturation of boring, expositional dialogue. We get absolutely none of that here, save for Willy’s wonderfully sardonic narration. This, in turn, leads to a wonderful screenplay; cynical, sarcastic and painfully authentic, there is no fluffy cinematic dialogue here; no literary quotes, no grand monologues. It’s a mostly mundane, everyday dialect that everybody can immediately recognise within their own lives.

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For a comparison – off the top of my head – one could look at Shane Meadows’ This is England, or, in fact, any of his work. Like Meadows, the Boukherma brothers have a wonderful ear for realism. From that plateau of authenticity comes some delightful humour, and poignant sadness. This in turn allows the characters to feel real. You never feel as though you’re watching a mere stereotype or caricature. Here, everybody feels like somebody you could meet walking down the street. Take our supposed protagonist, for example. Willy is, at least at first, a detestable and unlikeable character. He’s rude, obnoxious and stubborn, telling everybody, even those who help him, to ‘get stuffed.’ He is, by no stretch of the imagination, a conventional cinematic hero. What he is, effectively, is a disturbed, depressed, mentally-ill man-child with no sense of independence, or any ability whatsoever to function as an adult. He is as far removed from the Hollywood archetype as possible, and it’s because of this that, gradually, you grow to sympathise with him, even if, for me at least, that sympathy never fully turns into genuine likeability.

He isn’t a character; he’s a human being, horribly flawed, trying to achieve the most mundane of ambitions. Yet, the film does play with elements of minor surrealism that pay-off in a wonderful climax. Throughout the film, Willy is haunted by the ‘ghost’ of his brother Michel, and it is left completely ambiguous as to whether Michel truly is there in ethereal form, or is merely a projection of Willy’s subconscious. Regardless of interpretation, it’s a wonderful stylistic touch that never clashes with the realism of the situation; rather, it adds an extra dimension to the film, elevating it beyond a potentially boring kitchen-sink dark-comedy to an incredible coming-of-age tale. The twist being, of course, that the character making this transition isn’t the teenager, but a man already in his 50’s.

It’s less coming-of-age – more of a rebirth. The aesthetic of the film also plays into this ideal of stylistic realism; for every beautiful shot – of which there are a few- there are ten extreme close-ups, which gives it a documentarian feel, further allowing us to buy into the concept that this isn’t a work of fiction, but perhaps a genuine look into a small section of the life of a very real human being. This then feeds into the future comedy, as, when the Boukherma Brothers switch it up, and present us with a more cinematically beautiful sequence, that sequence stands-out more; is highlighted, and works on a level it may not have done had the entire film been that stylised and beautiful.

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These moments, these glorious moments, have such an impact upon you because of this. I also love how they take mundane, everyday moments and present them as if they were the pivotal action moment of a Hollywood scene. There is an incredibly entertaining sequence in which Willy merely starts his scooter, yet the Boukherma Brother’s shoot it as if he were the hero of a Hollywood film preparing for a final showdown. This juxtaposition – this dramatising of the mundane – is just another part of the film’s endless charm and character. Now, I hope not to offend anyone here, but I have to say this in order to hammer home by point.

Other than Noémie Lvovsky, who is a visual treat, none of the primary characters in this film are what we called beautiful – at least not by Hollywood standards. Willy, for example, is played by Daniel Vannet in his feature debut. He is not remotely attractive, at least by conventional standards, with a bulldog-like face, squinty piggy-eyes, and is massively overweight; a point hammered home by the amount of screen time spent with him in his underwear. Make no mistake about it, I’m not being a horrible human being; The Boukherma Brothers fully intended to make Willy as aesthetically displeasing as possible.

The rest of the cast range from relatively attract to not remotely; Romain Leger, playing Willy’s homosexual best (and only) friend, being the notable exception. This casting, the antithesis of Hollywood’s looks-obsessed nature, serves the film’s purpose wonderfully. This is a mundane story, featuring mundane people living mundane lives, and it’s all the better for it. The film also serves somewhat as not only be antithecal of the traditional Hollywood blockbuster, but also as an antidote to the contemporary American Independent Scene.

Unfortunately, due to the success of Juno and Napoleon Dynamite, American Independent Cinema is now saturated with the same archetypal film; the forced quirkyness. ‘Eccentric’ characters in ‘Kooky’ situations with ‘Bizarre’ family members, culminating in the mostly awful The End Of The Fucking World. Willy the 1st falls much more in line with British model, which has recently produced some fantastic cinema, of being authentically funny without ever feeling forced, and the bizarreness coming not from silly hats or unnecessary editing, but from the characters themselves. Vannet, for his part, gives a magnificently understated performance. Again, it may not appear, to the casual film-goer, like great acting; it’s stilted, lifeless and Vannet displays no natural charisma whatsoever. This, however, is the point. Willy is a stilted, lifeless, non-charismatic character.

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Vannet pulls this off with noticeable ease, and, at times, you can fully believe that Vannet IS Willy, and not merely an actor playing Willy. His use of his eyes is extremely impressive, and a scene towards the end, when his eyes flood with very real tears, will almost certainly pull a few from your own. Kyle MacLachlan, the king of the cry-face, would find it hard to match it. The entire cast – to their credit – manage to pull of this realism with ease, each fitting their character suitably. Now, Willy the 1st won’t be for everybody. Those who like tightly-woven narratives with larger than life characters will almost certainly find the entire thing painfully dull and boring, perhaps somewhat pointless. Yet, there’s a lot to be said here; from the way we treat those who try and help us, to how we exploit those who are naive, to the futility of being unable to let go off the past. There are a surprising amount of juggling themes running through the narrative, yet, they’re not thrust in your face or telegraphed openly.

It’s subtle and mature writing, that, for a directorial pairing’s debut feature-film, is incredible. For such a young pair of artists to produce such a restrained, mature and complete thematic work at such a tender age is remarkable, and they deserve all the plaudits in the world. It’s not a masterpiece of cinema, or a revolutionary game-changer. It’s a charming, beautiful film that manages to walk that oh-so-tricky tightrope between comedy and poignant emotion. These brothers have a bright future and are definitely worth keeping an eye on.

Review by Joshua Moulinie

4 out of 5

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