At first glance, “Bat out of Hell” looks to be yet another dismissible foray into the familiar territory of Euro gangster pics that borrow heavily from Martin Scorsese, Jean-Pierre Melville and Quentin Tarantino. But French theater director-turned-filmmaker Xavier Durringer has more than enough of his own instincts, style and head-turning technique to command attention. Despite its almost impenetrable plotting, this engrossing, potently performed trip inside the criminal milieu should find a place in fest lineups devoted to new directors.
A young wiseguy who has followed in his father’s footsteps, Francois (Arnaud Giovaninetti) pulls off a successful hit but is caught up in the aftermath of inter-gang vendetta. For protection, he teams up with volatile thug Rufin (Gerald Laroche) and an assorted band of criminals.
Seemingly biding his time while waiting for the reprisals that are sure to come, he begins pursuing a seductive nightclub singer (Claire Keim), whom he narrowly saves from being raped by his cohorts during a night of revelry that gets out of hand. As his high-powered associates begin to drop, Francois’ position is increasingly threatened. The considerable power wielded by his father (Daniel Duval) ultimately spares him, but his conflicting feelings for his unscrupulous pere provide him with worse demons to face.
The fragmentary narrative is far too stingy with the clues it throws out, and even when the story crystallizes in the final reels, it does so only up to a point. Some of the characters are clumsily developed; the singer, in particular, is introduced as a tough chanteuse who is no stranger to underworld haunts, but suddenly is revealed later on to be a dedicated do-gooder, helping the poor and homeless and purifying Francois by bringing him into contact with society’s wretched refuse in a rather incongruous closing act.
Given these scripting problems, it is a testament to Durringer’s directorial skills that the film remains compelling even while the plot mechanics are badly in need of oil. Durringer and editor Raphaelle Urtin smoothly modulate contrasting shifts in atmosphere, moving back and forth between calm spells and tense, explosive moments punctuated by graphic violence. Standout scenes include an edgy borderline orgy during which Francois’ cohorts let off steam in a club, and his moody drive home with the singer; accomplished lenser Matthieu Vadepied’s beautiful shots are held here for daringly long stretches.
Performances are on-target throughout the cast, notably from soulful lead Giovaninetti, Laroche as his unpredictable but loyal partner and Brigitte Catillon as a frosty gangster’s wife. Music is well used, from opera to Keim’s cool vocals to Ry Cooder-style acoustic guitar tunes.