An intriguing matrimony of bildungsfilm and neo-noir, “Bad Seeds” credibly transposes a Boileau-Narcejac novel to present-day Gaul. Starring real-life father and son Charles and Emile Berling, as a widowed provincial high-school principal and his ingenuous teen offspring who nonetheless goes astray, this atmospherically shot, strongly acted feature reps another solid addition to the impressive filmography of helmer Safy Nebbou (“Dumas,” “Mark of an Angel”). Unsurprisingly, a dog-days-timed French bow didn’t amount to much, though offshore theatrical could be in the cards, and fest life, which kicked off in Montreal, should be healthy.
Given that the work of writing duo Boileau-Narcejac has spawned adaptations as accomplished as “Les Diaboliques” and “Vertigo,” it’s odd that their work isn’t filmed more often. Except for a 1980 French TV movie, this is the first time their 1970s novel “L’age bete” has been brought to the screen. The untranslatable pun in the title suggests an age of foolishness (both as an era and adolescence in general) as well as the savagery and violence of this dark story, with another possible interpretation being “The Beastly Age.”
As adapted by Nebbou and co-scripter Gilles Taurand (“Sister”), the story is now set in contempo France, where Pierre Verdier (Berling pere) lives with his teen son, Louis (Berling fils), in a small town. Pierre teaches at the local high school and seems to use work as an excuse not to interact much with Louis. But it slowly emerges that Pierre’s not a bad father, per se, and that both are still trying to come to grips with the untimely death of Louis’ mother.
Perhaps unable to cope with the loss, Louis, who seems a naive but reasonable person who takes after his father, starts hanging out with misfit Greg (Kevin Azais), who recently got into trouble for threatening a teacher (Sarah Stern) with a pair of scissors. Rather than accepting his punishment, Greg has convinced his buddy to help him kidnap the educator in question for a day in order to give her a good scare.
The boys’ rain-sodden nighttime trip with their abductee to a cabin in the woods actually plays out in an atmospherically creepy prologue, with subsequent scenes filling in the background story. This allows Nebbou to immediately make auds wonder who would do such a thing and why, serving up each quotidian detail as a potential piece of the puzzle. But this wouldn’t be a Boileau-Narcejac story without an additional twist, as the bulk of the pic follows the unexpectedly heavy burden that falls on Louis with regard to the teacher’s fate.
Using effective closeups that scrutinize Emile Berling’s soft-featured face for signs of youthful innocence, Nebbou paints a complex if not always tonally smooth picture of a troubled teenager who finds himself in a situation he could hardly have anticipated. Neither weak-willed nor leadership material, neither criminally unhinged nor entirely sane, his character is finely etched in both screenplay and performance, as young Berling impresses in another role opposite his subdued father, after “Summer Hours.”
Below-the-line credits are all top-drawer, including the moody camerawork by Pierre Cottereau; the bare-bones music by Jerome Reuter, which effectively counterpoints the busy classical pieces on the soundtrack; and the ace work of costume designer Magdalena Labuz, whose choice of jackets for the two boys alone signals volumes about their characters. Production design is also sharp, though the connection between the paintings in the Verdier home and the goings-on in the cabin feels a tad on the nose.