Kad Merad in "Superstar"

Whereas Xavier Giannoli's previous works ("The Singer," "In the Beginning") were affecting and insightful melodramas, this film about people who are famous for being famous is, perhaps ironically, all flash and no substance.

A nobody becomes well-known overnight for no apparent reason in Xavier Giannoli’s “Superstar.” Whereas the Gallic helmer’s previous works (“The Singer,” “In the Beginning”) were affecting and insightful melodramas, this film about people who are famous for being famous is, perhaps ironically, all flash and no substance. With its cipher protag, it’s impossible to buy into the premise emotionally, making the pic play like a bloated 112-minute reality show with superior production values. The presence of France’s go-to average Joe, Kad Merad (“Welcome to the Sticks”) and Cecile de France could help boost Euro sales.

Pic starts in media res, with Kazinksi (Merad) being prepped by redheaded TV producer Fleur (de France) for his appearance on the (fictional) Gallic talkshow “22 heures en direct,” presented by Albin (real-life tube host Ben). On the air, he recounts how it all started earlier that week, when out of the blue, people started recognizing him on the subway, asking for autographs and taking his picture, with the resulting turmoil filmed by bystanders on their phones. The footage subsequently found its way onto the Internet, and suddenly Kazinski, who works at a company that recycles old electronic parts, is a nationwide sensation.

This starting point is intriguing enough, as it offers both a mystery element — why did people start recognizing this single, balding fortysomething who has never done anything to become famous? — and something of a cheeky metaphor for the fact that most people don’t have to possess any particular kind of talent in order to become a media darling, turning the near-constant press coverage of celebrities into a kind of cannibalistic, self-fulfilling prophecy.

But Giannoli, who co-wrote the screenplay with Marcia Romano, seems content to let his clever setup (borrowed from the Serge Joncour novel “L’idole”) just sit there, as if it were a gimmicky short film. (Which is pretty much what Woody Allen recently did in his similarly themed Roberto Benigni-starring segment in “From Rome With Love.”) Beyond a clear desire to understand what has happened to him and the certainty that he does not want to be famous, Martin has no personality to speak of. Giannoli excludes any glimpse of what Martin was like before he became known, and throughout the ordeal, the Everyman has just two basic expressions — “Why?” and “Make it stop” — making character development or identification impossible.

Martin’s new entourage includes producer Fleur; the sleazy married talkshow director (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) with whom Fleur is having an affair; and the channel’s ratings-horny boss (Stephan Wojtowicz). They all seem aware that they’re more intelligent than the stuff they produce, but hide behind the excuse of “giving the audience what they want.” And they seem willing, if perhaps not always content, to use Martin to this end.

What Giannoli gives the audience is a series of cliches about the media as a cynical, success-oriented business that has no heart. But absent any new or more refined insight, or any kind of emotional hook, why should auds care?

Merad does what he can in a role that’s so passive, the filmmakers might as well have asked a hologram to do the acting for him. De France, so good in Giannoli’s “The Singer,” is stuck in a thankless role here, her odd combo of softball jackets and out-there earrings underscoring the fact that her character is still a couple of drafts away from a fully developed human being. De Lencquesaing has more fun in his bitchy bit part, and Alberto Sorbelli injects a note of warmth as a world-wise transgender character, though he, too, is awkwardly inserted and sketchily conceived. Tech package, as usual for Giannoli, is pleasingly slick, with a standout contribution from Belgian master d.p. Christophe Beaucarne shooting his first film in digital.

Superstar

France-Belgium French dialogue

Production

A Wild Bunch Distribution, Studio 37 (in France) release of a Rectangle Prods., Wild Bunch, Studio 37, France 3 Cinema, Scope Pictures presentation of Rectangle Prods. production, in association with Wild Bunch, Studio 37, France 3 Cinema, Scope Pictures, with the participation of Canal Plus, Cine Plus, France Televisions. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Edouard Weil. Directed by Xavier Giannoli. Screenplay, Giannoli, Marcia Romano, based on the novel "L'idole" by Serge Joncour.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Christophe Beaucarne; editor, Celia Lafite Dupont; music, Mathieu Blanc-Francard; production designer, Francois-Renaud Labarthe; costume designer, Nathalie Benros; sound (Dolby Digital), Francois Musy, Gabriel Hafner; assistant director, Arnaud Esterez; casting, Sarah Teper, Leila Fournier. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Aug. 30, 2012. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Kad Merad, Cecile de France, Louis-Do de Lencquesaing, Ben, Alberto Sorbelli, Pierre Diot, Christophe Kourotchkine, Stephan Wojtowicz, Garba Tounkara, Herve Pierre, Romain Medioni, Mathias Camberlein. (French dialogue)
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