Thesp Jalil Lespert (“Tell No One”) makes a confident feature helming debut with “24 Bars,” a four-character study of emotionally crippled souls who meet by chance on Christmas Eve. Though the subject isn’t new, Lespert’s studied yet free-feeling construction, lensed largely at close range, keeps interest focused throughout unexpected twists and turns. Title, sometimes given as “24 Measures,” alludes to twice the traditional 12-bar blues chord, paralleled in the assured, jazz-like combination of solos and ensemble. While it’s unlikely to sweep the charts, pic should do respectable biz at home, with possible breakout in art cinemas.
Down-at-the-heel peroxide-blonde prostitute Helly (Lubna Azabal, “Paradise Now”) needs money and a fix when she wakes up in a john’s apartment the morning of Christmas Eve. Her pimp humiliates her, her son’s caretakers won’t let her see him until the next day, and she’s about ready to collapse in despair when she gets into the off-duty taxi of cabbie Didier (Benoit Magimel).
First seen in fevered prayer, Didier starts his day by robbing his workplace and heading over to the strip joint where Helly works, but all his cash-waving just gets him tossed on his ear. He decides Helly will fit the bill, paying her to pretend she’s his fiancee while he presents her to his hospitalized, comatose dad.
Following a spectacularly unexpected and beautifully handled denouement, Helly meets conflicted lesbian Marie (Berangere Allaux), seething from an encounter with her monumentally self-obsessed mother (Marisa Berenson, in a very brief role). Marie and Helly wind up in a disco with Chris (Sami Bouajila), himself reeling from an emotional encounter with jazz musician Marcus Briggs (Archie Shepp), whose criticism of Chris’ father years earlier led to the latter’s suicide.
If thoughts of “Eleanor Rigby” spring to mind, it’s because everyone here is deeply lonely yet desperate for some connection, often family-based. Each character gets his or her moment in the spotlight (though Chris is given short shrift, leaving an imbalance that’s never rectified), as in a free jazz performance, before merging into the cacophony of joint emotions. Auds expecting explanations will be disappointed: Lespert makes the viewer accept certain mysteries, paralleling the seemingly purposeless movement of flocks of birds he draws into the mix.
Unsurprisingly for an actor, Lespert coaxes strong perfs from everyone, with Magimel and Azabal special standouts. Any lack of originality is masked by a few truly surprising, and emotionally accurate, scenes, not to mention the distinctly claustrophobic, primarily nocturnal lensing, the camera keeping pace with the characters without ever seeming rushed or gratuitous.Music, so important both aurally and structurally, is nicely calibrated.