A hardened criminal mastermind nearly gets his comeuppance by way of his long-forgotten mother in Albert Dupontel’s overwrought “The Villain.” As long as this comedy’s various Rube Goldberg-style traps and apparatuses are front and center, its ultra-broad tone at least has a proper scale. But for the other 95% of the playing time, when human beings (or the film’s facsimiles thereof) are onscreen, this is farce majeure with a mirthless heavy hand. A decent local performer for Studio Canal, pic will encounter import issues in most markets.
Sweet, prim, elderly pensioner Maniette (Catherine Frot, half-heartedly made up to look about twice her age) is being pressured by local developer Mr. Korazy (Bouli Lanners) to sell her home for planned commercial expansion. But her real headache is that she’s the object of constant accidents in which her life is always spared. (An early example provides director Dupontel with one of his better sight gags.)
Convinced that God is punishing her with eternal life for some undetermined past sin, Maniette is ready to accept her fate until the sudden appearance of her long-absent son, Sidney (Dupontel), who, unbeknownst to her, is an ace criminal hiding from a gang of violently pissed-off colleagues he’s just swindled.
Before the playing devolves into a steadily mean tone, “The Villain” invests its early passages with a certain farcical charm and absurdly exaggerated staging, particularly involving the elaborate hidden compartments in Sidney’s childhood bedroom. Maniette, a smart cookie, figures out that Sidney has deceived her for years: Her discoveries, and Sidney’s disposal of a pesky pet tortoise, are the movie’s comic peaks until things go quickly downhill.
Dupontel clearly intends to carry on a great French tradition of actor-director comedians, but his exhaustion at juggling too many balls becomes painfully evident, leaving it to Frot to maintain a more palatable and ironic tone. (Frot’s reactions to escaping yet another near-death experience are among her career-best moments.) The supporting cast is too clownish by half.
Production designer Bertrand Seitz is the real star of this show, hatching all manner of moving devices, mechanical nonsense and domestic bric-a-brac that distracts from the film’s underlying nastiness. Pierre-Yves Bastard’s lighting maintains a cozy warmth that keeps audiences off guard.