An overpaid, cocaine-addled Parisian ad man is so disgusted by his craven, manipulative profession that he kills himself in “99 Francs.” Wait! No, he doesn’t. Well, maybe he does. Jan Kounen, the Carlos Castaneda of hipster helmers, injects a massive dose of pleasingly hallucinatory visuals into this screen adaptation of Gallic media gadfly Frederic Beigbeder’s zeitgeist-nailing novel. Pic features yet another zesty, near-irresistable perf by Jean Dujardin (“Brice de Nice,” “OSS 117”) as smartass creative type Octave, whose professional success holds the germ of personal failure.
Predominantly young auds are turning out for the film, released Sept. 26, a stylish roller coaster that deploys the kinetic vocabulary of cinema and advertising to denounce the hollow center of consumer society.
Beigbeder’s book — amusingly retitled “14,99 euros,” followed by “6,20 euros” for the paperback, after the franc bit the dust — has sold over half a million copies since its publication in 2000. Pic’s action is set in 2001.
Kounen was a smart choice, as his 2004 feature “Blueberry” (certainly the costliest and least commercial hallucinogen-themed Western ever made) and docs “Other Worlds” and “Darshan” all posit spiritual realms ordinary noggins can’t begin to comprehend. Kounen got his start in advertising (prior to making notorious short “Vibroboy” and his splashy 1997 feature debut “Doberman”), and he ably illustrates how literally sickening it is that $500 billion a year worldwide is spent plugging predominantly useless products, when a fraction of that, per the United Nations, would alleviate world hunger.
At pic’s outset, whirling kaleidoscopic imagery morphs into a sardonic billboard. It’s a rainy night, and Octave is about to leap off the skyscraper housing his employer, mega-agency Ross & Witchcraft. All Octave ever wanted was to create ad campaigns. He got his wish, but it led to the voiceover realization that “Man is a product like any other, with an expiration date. Everything is transitory: love, art, planet earth, you, me — especially me.”
Helmer uses gobs of techniques from the digital arsenal to establish, in flashback, what the world looks like to unraveling Octave, a leading light at R&W. Octave and his sidekick Charlie (Jocelyn Quivrin) present their latest concept for a commercial to the agency’s biggest client, a dairy products giant.
Their ad, for a low-calorie yogurt, is funny in a sexy and cerebral way, but the CEO wants something more conventional to appeal to harried housewives. The switch in tone proves to be a turning point in Octave’s coke-snorting life. When Octave is too cavalier toward g.f. Sophie (Vahina Giocante), who then leaves him, nothing makes him feel better for long.
Drama hinges on whether Octave will play along with the client and outdo himself in the unconscionable exploitation of hapless consumers, or find a way to rebel from within the system.
Pic seems like a fairly standard, if extremely stylish, tale for much of its running time, only to bifurcate into less expected territory. Post-credits coda shows how one of history’s first commercials was benign, but the devil is in the details.
As came to pass concerning “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gecko, who was not intended as a role model but became one anyway for a certain segment of society, some viewers may miss the pic’s message about advertising being anything but neutral and benign. Ironically, this cautionary tale has enough seductive razzle-dazzle and allure to be mistaken for a commercial for life in the really, really fast lane.
Frantic venture borders on exhausting, but boasts a few exceptional highlights. These include Octave’s attempt to convince a model family that nobody on earth lives or speaks in slogans the way they do, and an animated seg in Miami in which Octave, Charlie and a model swallow mystery pills and go cruising in a convertible to cream pedestrians.
The late Stanley Kubrick would have recognized vast swaths of the classical score pic happens to employ.