“Elephant” meets, well, “Elephant” in first-time writer-director Fabrice Gobert’s “Lights Out,” a deftly realized teen thriller that sticks too close to Gus Van Sant’s movie to feel like its own thing. Though there’s no massacre at its center, pic uses a similarly fragmented structure and Steadicam aesthetic to follow a group of French high school students plagued by missing classmates, dead bodies and their own uncontrollable hormones. But with more style than substance, and a certain lack of freshness, “Lights” will glow primarily in scattered Francophone and offshore arthouses following its preem in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.
It’s 1992 on the campus of the Lycee Leon Blum (located in the suburbs west of Paris), and alternative rock is all the rage. So is accusing teachers of being gay and trying to steal your best friend’s boyfriend.
When a student named Simon Werner (Laurent Delbecque) disappears, his ex-g.f. (Ana Girardot, promising), her best friend (Audrey Bastien) and tortured-looking soccer player Jeremie (Jules Pelissier) begin piecing together the clues, most of which yield false leads and unfounded rumors. They’re soon joined by a weirdo preppy (Arthur Mazet, subtle and strange) and a punked-out loner (Selma El Mouissi), who in time also vanish, leaving their friends to fend for themselves as the plot twists and turns in deepening circles.
Employing a “Roshamon”-style narrative structure, Gobert provides a setup that starts off wobbly but builds interest as the mystery unfolds. He also has a knack for portraying adolescents in all their oily awkwardness, and there are a few moments of youthful bliss — especially the romance between the punk and the preppy — that would have played better had they not been bundled up in such a Manichean scenario.
Unfortunately, the sense that there’s an “Elephant” in the room takes over early on, and the events depicted here ultimately feel less meaningful and more forced upon us than those in the Van Sant film (which was all the more compelling for eschewing a clear-cut explanation). And though “Lights Out” initially aims at something vaguely disturbing, its rather lightweight resolution all too neatly ties up the trajectories of characters who remained compelling as long as their lives seemed messy and real.
Solid camerawork and low-key lighting by ace d.p. Agnes Godard gives the action a naturalistic flavor, though the use of lengthy Steadicam shots to follow the roaming protags lends yet another sense of deja vu. In contrast, the claustrophobic ‘burb setting and stark modernist decors make for a much more menacing backdrop, creating an atmosphere that’s somewhere between a Hollywood horror pic and a work of Euro arthouse alienation.
Original soundtrack by Sonic Youth is filled with guitar-heavy ballads in an early ’90s style, mixed with tracks by the Cramps, Killing Joke and Tom Waits.
Press screening caught before Cannes was shown without end credits.