Film Review: ‘Tonnerre’

Vincent Macaigne navigates a rock musician's downward spiral in Guillaume Brac's engrossingly nuanced character study.

Tonnerre Film Review

A career-stalled rock musician, leaving Paris for his small hometown of Tonnerre, falls in love and falls apart in Guillaume Brac’s engrossingly nuanced character study. Brac shifts tones radically, veering sharply from awkward romantic comedy into psychological-thriller territory, naturalizing his hero’s obsessive behavior and downward spiral while leaving room for unexpected side trips. Synching small-town rhythms with one man’s desperate need for stability, and questioning if you can go home again, this strong fest entry signals Brac as a director to watch, but remains a long shot for non-domestic arthouse release.

Maxime (Macaigne) has barely moved back into his childhood home and started to renegotiate his relationship with affable, oddball dad, Claude (Bernard Menez, memorable), and Claude’s poetry-loving dog, Cannibal, when cute local reporter Melanie (Solene Rigot) comes to interview the prodigal hometown celebrity. Unsurprisingly, thirtysomething Maxime falls hard for the younger woman but, perhaps more surprisingly, she warmly responds to his embarrassing yet endearing overtures. They soon become a couple, exploring subterranean chapels, tramping along snowy trails and making love in boarded-up summer homes overlooking an enchanting lake.

In all four pics he toplined in 2013 (and in Brac’s 2011 short film, “A World Without Women”), the apparently ubiquitous, unprepossessing-looking Macaigne sports a mug that seems carved out of neurotic longing; even when he smiles, there lurks a vulnerability that calls down suffering and angst. Thus, when Melanie suddenly dumps him, leaving his frantic phone messages unanswered, the viewer, undoubtedly noticing certain ambiguities in her reactions to him (she is loving and open when alone with him, uptight and evasive when around her young peers) should hardly be astonished. Maxime, on the other hand, grows increasingly frustrated, angry and despondent, finally going completely off the rails and committing acts that set him heading straight for disaster.

But the film inscribes Maxime’s melodramatic meltdown in a setting little conducive to histrionics. Family, in Brac’s version of things, offers support without schmaltz. Instead, it supplies stray moments of serendipity as Maxime strums his guitar and haltingly essays his new song, with Claude humming along, leaning on his own guitar (unseen until now), and with whuffling canine accompaniment from Cannibal.

The small Burgundy town of Tonnerre forms a knowable, familiar topography where characters navigate the same streets, landmarks and watering holes. In this odd safety net of home, even going off the deep end brings scenic detours and redemptive switchbacks.

Film Review: ‘Tonnerre’

Reviewed at Walter Reade Theater, New York, Feb. 27, 2014. (Also in "Rendez-vous With French Cinema," New York; 2013 Locarno Film Festival.) Running time: <strong>102 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (France) A Wild Bunch release of a Rectangle Prods., Wild Bunch, France 3 Cinema production, with the participation of Cine Plus, France Televisions, in association with Soficinema 9, Hoche Images, Cinemage 7, Cofimage 24. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Alice Girard.
  • Crew: Directed by Guillaume Brac. Screenplay, Brac, Helene Rualt, with the collaboration of Catherine Paille. Camera (color), Tom Harari; editor, Damien Maestraggi; music, Timothee Regnier; production designer, Helena Cisterne; sound (Dolby Digital), Emmanuel Bonnat; re-recording mixers, Julien Roig, Vincent Verdoux; associate producer, Edouard Weil; casting, Elodie Demey.
  • With: Vincent Macaigne, Solene Rigot, Bernard Menez, Jonas Bloquet, Herve Dampt, Marie-Anne Guerin.
  • Music By: