Funny Peculiar

December 11, 2007By Tom RidgwayFilm

Benoît Poelvoorde. You probably don’t recognize the name, but you might remember him as the charismatic serial killer in his 1992 debut, Man Bites Dog. Since then he has gone on to become one of France’s most beloved actors (even though, like other French idols, including Jacques Brel, he’s actually Belgian).

Poelvoorde, who has constructed a career that swings between broad comedy (in, say, Podium, in which he starred as an impersonator of French disco king Claude François) and smaller, more personal pieces, manages to invest even his broader roles with a certain sadness and empathy for the loser: the man who has big dreams but lacks the talent to make them real.

His latest film, Cow-boy, is definitely in that register. The second feature he’s worked on with Belgian director Benoît Mariage (the first was 1999’s wonderful Les Convoyeurs Attendent), Poelvoorde plays Daniel Piron, a TV presenter who, tired of his road-safety show, tries to make a documentary about an infamous event in Belgian history by reuniting the then-children who were on a bus hijacked in 1980 by anti-capitalist Tony Sacchi (played with fabulous levels of sleaze by Gilbert Melki). Daniel thinks this is a great idea and that the documentary will reveal how society has changed. Of course, it only reveals just how much he hasn’t.

Like the character he played in Les Convoyeurs, Poelvoorde’s Daniel is a man with firmly held beliefs, beliefs he can’t let go off even when reality does its best to show him how wrong he is. His ambition is far greater then his talents, which leaves him incapable of understanding why no one (including his wife – a distant Julie Depardieu – and his colleagues) sees things as he does.

In one telling scene, two of Daniel’s colleagues discuss the first images of his film in the office toilets. Unbeknownst to them, Daniel is in the cubicle, and, after they have thoroughly trashed the work, the camera doesn’t show Daniel rushing out to defend himself, but slowly lifting his feet from the ground so they won’t find out he’s heard them. Mariage’s film is full of moments of such quotidian tragedy, snippets of daily disappointment.

Cow-boy is delicately scripted (it never patronizes its characters, even Daniel), intelligently (and simply) filmed and wonderfully played by all. And just when the film begins to lose you – it gets hard to take any more of Daniel’s self-destructive behavior – Mariage conjures up an ending that couldn’t be more perfect. In the image of the rest of the film, it’s sad, inspiring, happy, comic, tragic and ever so slightly out of tune.


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