Premiering out of competition — and by extension, out of the spotlight — at the same edition of the Cannes Film Festival that begat “Son of Saul,” polemical French director Robert Guediguian’s “Don’t Tell Me the Boy Was Mad” grapples with many of the same questions of irreparable damage and historical representation that surround another of the 20th century’s unreconciled genocides, albeit in a far less conceptual or arresting way. Addressing the still scandalously under-represented Armenian tragedy not via the mass exterminations that targeted his own ancestors, but rather through later generations’ subsequent attempts at revenge, Guediguian sides with the activists’ cause even as he condemns their methods. While the subject deserves further attention, the hard truth is that this “crazy story’s” moral complexity, combined with the lack of a clear protagonist, renders its telling dramatically inert — and therefore unlikely to significantly impact attitudes either in France or abroad.
One could debate ad nauseam the pros and cons of a film depicting the Ottoman Empire’s persecution, deportation and elimination of its Armenian populace, which began on April 24, 1915, and resulted in an estimated 1.5 million deaths — but Guediguian sidesteps that issue by setting his film more than half a century later, when Turkish pressure on French authorities force the local police to interrupt an April 24 remembrance ceremony at a local Armenian church. Here, plainly depicted is the insult-upon-injury slight still visited upon survivors two generations after the fact: For rhetorical and diplomatic reasons alike, many countries, including the United States, refuse to acknowledge those historic crimes against humanity as a “genocide” — a term not invented until 1943, and as politically incorrect as they come.
And yet, history has illustrated the danger of such willful disregard. Adolf Hitler himself is quoted as saying, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” in justifying the Final Solution. Such issues serve as subtext to Guediguian’s film — the first narrative feature in the outspokenly communist, half-Armenian helmer’s 35-year career to deal with that facet of his heritage (not counting 2006 documentary “Armenia”). The stiff and virtually unrelatable result takes its awkward English title from a France Gall song (“He Played the Piano Standing Up,” heard in the film) and nearly everything else from “The Bomb,” a novel by Jose Antonio Gurriaran, a Spanish journalist paralyzed by an Armenian terrorist attack.
Gurriaran’s story is remarkable in that he not only survived a bomb planted by the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (by jumping on the device, no less), but managed to reconcile himself to the incident after educating himself about the organization’s cause: In other words, he ultimately decided that the Armenians were just in fighting for their legacy, and later went on to become one of his country’s leading advocates for awareness of what he called “the forgotten genocide.”
More compelling on paper than onscreen, where it reminds of relatively toothless 2013 drama “The Railway Man,” that true story inspires the character of Gilles, played by Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet, a slightly dopey-looking and altogether too passive French actor. Riding his bicycle too close to the Turkish ambassador’s car one night in Berlin, Gilles becomes unfortunate collateral damage in an ASALA attack, carried out by young Aram (the almost unreasonably handsome Syrus Shahidi). It should be said that the ambassador’s chauffeur is another innocent victim, overlooked by the film, which fights racism with racism. Is past treatment really justification for certain Armenians’ lingering hatred of present-day Turks? And why is neither Aram’s conviction nor Gilles’ confusion enough for us to care about either character?
In Aram’s case, the young man has grown up listening to his exiled grandmother’s hateful stories of what happened to her people: “If you become a captain, fill the ship with explosives and sail it straight into the port of Istanbul,” she tells him. Guediguian seems to be of two minds about such indoctrination, torn between the fact that some causes demand violent solutions, while clearly aware that violence itself is reprehensible. That paradox becomes the central conflict of his unwieldy script, which tracks the dual fates — tied by the bomb and bound to reunite before the film’s end — in such an unengaging back-and-forth way that neither character quite comes into his own.
As if Guediguian’s project weren’t already bloated enough, he opens in 1921 with a black-and-white prologue, in which two old men playing chess in the park recite a line that wouldn’t be written for another 87 years: David Grossman’s adage that “the most important moments in history do not happen in the battlefields or the palace, but in the kitchens, the bedrooms and the kids’ rooms.” Those words clearly reveal the domestic stages where Guediguian intends for his over-intellectualized piece of political theater to unfold — but not before re-creating the public execution of the former grand vizier (and instigator of the Armenian genocide) Talaat Pasha by Armenian hero Soghomon Tehlirian.
Here, told with stultifying dullness, is a history lesson every bit as unexpected as Gurriaran’s, in which Tehlirian, who openly and unrepentantly confessed to the crime in court, was acquitted by a jury sympathetic to his motives. The boy wasn’t mad, the public decided, but rather justified in his actions — a frightening ruling that would appear to condone vigilante and “terrorist” behavior when the incidents that provoke it are significant enough. Much later in the film, when Aram finally meets Gilles, he seems to be channeling Tehlirian when he tells his victim, “You’re innocent, but I’m not guilty,” in lieu of an apology.
In the interim, audiences must sit through more than two hours of plodding melodrama, much of it taking place in the aforementioned kitchens and bedrooms: Aram’s mother (Ariane Ascaride) feels guilty for her son’s actions and goes to apologize to Gilles in hospital; Gilles struggles with his new handicap, rejecting his fiancee; Aram begins to question ASALA’s methods, but mostly because the org forbids him to shag comely comrade Anahit (Razane Jammal); and as an overworked grocer, the great French-Armenian actor Simon Abkarian stumbles around with not enough to do.
Instead of inviting intimacy, it all unfolds in uninteresting spaces, unimaginatively blocked, framed and shot. Better tech credits might have helped to compensate for Guediguian’s deliberate choice to avoid more sensational aspects of the story, which pushes a botched airport bombing and other potentially thrilling incidents offscreen. Perhaps Guediguian’s most significant choice here is to push the conversation forward past semantics (the film nearly avoids using the word “genocide” at all), only to find the result bogged down in an equally touchy philosophical debate about the potential merits of “terrorism” (a loaded term frequently deployed by the same in-power parties positioned to suppress the G-word).