Opening with a bang and ending with a whimper, “French Blood” follows more than 20 years in the life of a neo-Nazi skinhead, from the bloody street fights of his youth to a transformative adulthood, but comes with its own set of regrets and misgivings. It’s an epic tale that Diasteme, the single-monikered writer-director, has curiously chosen to break into ellipses, reducing to 97 minutes a story that would seem more naturally suited to twice the length. The passing of time is both a strength and a weakness in that Diasteme shows how age and circumstance can completely alter a person, but he’s frustratingly unclear on the question of how. These dramatic lapses sap the pic’s energy after an electrifying start and stand to alienate non-Gallic audiences, who might not pick up on its shorthand observations about the country’s right-wing nationalist movement.
Bowing at the Toronto film festival after stirring headlines (but not much box office) back home, “French Blood” opens with a scene uncannily reminiscent of Matthieu Kassovitz’s 1996 sensation “La Haine,” as a trio of jack-booted skinhead thugs mercilessly assault a group of Arabs they cross in a parking lot. Their campaign of terror continues as they amble down the street and into a bar, where they casually harass patrons of color, with still more bloodletting to follow later in a punk club, where the skinheads get in a brawl with a rival gang that intensifies into gunfire and a fatality. If this is day-in-the-life stuff for Marco (Alban Lenoir), Braguette (Samuel Jouy) and Grand-Guy (Paul Hamy), then it stands to reason that their days might be numbered.
Fitting the typical profile of a skinhead — alcoholic father, distracted mother, rough neighborhood in the Paris suburbs — Marco may be the central character in “French Blood,” but he’s by no means the central character in this group of friends, who are much more committed to the cause. But despite his passivity, Marco harbors an anger that occasionally explodes in terrifying spasms of violence, at least before life takes him and fellow skinheads in divergent directions. When Marco experiences a panic attack after an incident on a city bus, he staggers to a pharmacy and picks up an unlikely friend in the druggist (Patrick Pineau), who comes to his aid. It marks an early turning point in the young man’s life, but that doesn’t stop him from marrying a far-right political activist (Lucie Dubay) who isn’t sympathetic to his evolving views.
Diasteme hints at a tragic irony in Marco’s life that stories of redemption rarely acknowledge: That sometimes learning to be a better person doesn’t result in a better life. Marco may be running with right-wing thugs, but that sense of friendship and community — more alluring to a kid from a rough background than far-right politics — is lost as they scatter to the winds. While “French Blood” hits these observations in bullet points, the hiccups in time prevent them from being fully developed or felt. It keeps jumping forward to new points on the timeline and leaving the audience to wonder exactly how Marco got there.
Such patchiness is by design, meant to show how swiftly people can evolve when their lives take them to new places and challenge their firmly held assumptions. But Diasteme’s abridgment costs him when he’s trying to account for the social forces that feed into Marco’s anger and prejudice or when he’s finding the pathway to political legitimacy that can lead a neo-Nazi teenager to orchestrate a fundraiser for the National Front when he gets older, grows his hair back, and buys a suit. Diasteme plots out all these trajectories well enough, but the film is missing too much connective tissue.
On the tech side, Diasteme opts for a handheld, grubby aesthetic that’s a bit predictable, right down to his Dardennes-derivative over-the-shoulder shots, but d.p. Philippe Guilbert works well with a limited color palette and natural light. Pic also smartly incorporates the big cultural moments that can cleave or unite a country, from the contentious 1988 presidential election to the 1998 World Cup, which made a hero out of Zinedine Zidane, the son of Algerian immigrants.