An ambitious, if misbegotten, undertaking, "K" shows that French helmer-producer Alexandre Arcady is not afraid of tackling big subjects or rolling up his sleeves to address current political issues. Arcady casts his net wide and occasionally scores a few plot points in this stylishly shot whodunit, which shoehorns together everything from Nazi theft of art from French Jews, Western export of nerve gas to Saddam Hussein and the conversion of Hitlerites into East German Stasi commandos to the growth of neo-fascist skinhead groups in Central Europe and the incidence of anti-Semites in the French police. As sustained narrative, however, "K" fails spectacularly; as spectacle, it belongs on cable. Even local B.O. looks limited, although pic should export well to Eurotube.

An ambitious, if misbegotten, undertaking, “K” shows that French helmer-producer Alexandre Arcady is not afraid of tackling big subjects or rolling up his sleeves to address current political issues. Arcady casts his net wide and occasionally scores a few plot points in this stylishly shot whodunit, which shoehorns together everything from Nazi theft of art from French Jews, Western export of nerve gas to Saddam Hussein and the conversion of Hitlerites into East German Stasi commandos to the growth of neo-fascist skinhead groups in Central Europe and the incidence of anti-Semites in the French police. As sustained narrative, however, “K” fails spectacularly; as spectacle, it belongs on cable. Even local B.O. looks limited, although pic should export well to Eurotube.

Arcady, given to making middling comedies since the well-deserved success of his clones of the “Godfather” saga in the early ’80s (“Le Grand Pardon,” “Le Grand Pardon II”), has demonstrably made “K” as a moral coming-of-age tale. Patrick Bruel plays a Paris cop aware of his Jewish identity and faced with the undeniable charms of Emma Guter (Isabella Ferrari), the conflicted daughter of an SS killer. Bruel’s character is asked to untangle his personal problems, the guilt complex of Germany and the betrayal of the central father figure of his life — all during a week speaking French and broken English in Berlin. Fortunately, singer-turned-thesp Bruel remains believable throughout, even if the plot doesn’t.

Pic opens during the Gulf War era with the murder of an elderly German tourist in Paris at the hands of Joseph Katz (Pinkas Braun), a kibitzing old junk dealer beloved by detective Sam Bellamy (Bruel). Despite witnessing the crime, Sam covers for Joseph, upon which the latter vanishes in mysterious circumstances.

At the auction of the murdered German’s goods in Berlin, the intrepid Sam runs across a trail that links ex-Nazis, ex-Communists and industrialists to a long-concealed trade in pilfered artworks. Thanks to his budding romance with Emma, the murder victim’s daughter, and handy discoveries of tape recordings, photographs and a secret room in an old mansion, Sam realizes there is a Nazi war criminal on the loose, blackmailing former associates and trading knowledge for power in the clandestine supply of Iraq’s war machine.

Enter an astoundingly benign Mossad commando team, headed by Marthe Keller and staffed by fresh-faced guys and gals intent on seeing justice served. When, in Arcady’s only truly abominable lapse in taste, Sam and Emma view a home movie of a war atrocity, the identity of the Nazi becomes clear.

Despite the title, pic owes less to Kafka than to “No Kaddish for Sylberstein ,” a French crime novel penned by Guy Konopnicki, and to journalist Hector Feliciano’s “Lost Museum,” an expose of continued complacency toward the fate of looted artworks that has rocked the Gallic cultural establishment in the past two years. Unfortunately, the political reach of Arcady and co-scripter Antoine Lacomblez far exceeds their grasp of narrative coherence.

Supporting Bruel in his adventures, Ferrari gives a measured perf as a tortured German father-hater, and Braun’s Joseph contains interior depths greater than those first suggested by his hackneyed “Fiddler”-like exterior. Tech credits are superb, especially vet British lenser Gerry Fisher’s dramatic lighting and Tony Egry’s meticulous sets. Philippe Sarde’s score is suitably moody.

K

(FRENCH)

Production

A New Light Films release (in France) of a New Light Films/TF1 Films/Alexandre Films production, in association with CNC and Canal Plus. (International sales: TF1 Intl., Paris.) Produced by Alexandre Arcady. Executive producer, Robert Benmussa. Directed by Alexandre Arcady. Screenplay, Arcady, Antoine Lacomblez, based on the novel "Pas de Kaddish pour Sylberstein" (No Kaddish for Sylberstein) by Guy Konopnicki; script advisers, Jorge Semprun, Serge Raffy.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Gerry Fisher; editor, Joele Van Effenterre; music, Philippe Sarde; production design, Tony Egry; costume design, Claire Fraisse, Baba Coudanne; sound (Dolby SR Digital), Dominique Levert; assistant director, Christophe Cheysson. Reviewed at Pathe Wepler Theater, Paris, Aug. 27, 1997. Running time: 135 MIN.

With

Sam Bellamy ..... Patrick Bruel Emma Guter ..... Isabella Ferrari Nora Winter ..... Marthe Keller Joseph Katz ..... Pinkas Braun
With: Jean-Francois Stevenin, Dieter Kirchlechner, Dan Tordjman, Burkhard Heyl, Lucien Layani, Samuel Atzmon, Andreas Hoppe, Helga Goring, Daniel Riviere, Jean-Claude de Goros.
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