Although in English it sounds like a type of sore, “Le Cancre” in French means “the dunce”; either way, it’s an unfortunate title for this most unfortunate feature from the 86-year-old veteran French independent filmmaker Paul Vecchiali, who stars as a wealthy dying man looking back on his life — and particularly on the many women he’s loved. Tedious, self-regarding and often quite amateurishly staged, “Le Cancre” might have earned its Cannes berth out of respect for its director (whose “Please Give Generously” played Directors’ Fortnight in 2004). That’s a valid sentiment, but not one that is going to help the movie travel.
The film gets going with a home invasion in which Rodolphe (Vecchiali) finds himself threatened by a man in a ski mask. This turns out to be his son Laurent (Pascal Cervo), who in a lame reveal is shown to be merely demonstrating why his father is unfit to live on his own. Laurent promptly moves in with him, and the rest of the movie spans from 2007 to the near-present as Rodolphe visits or is visited by the great women in his life, who mostly still regard him fondly and inspire him to reminisce about his former romantic prowess, which perhaps remains undulled. (“Women still like you, and you know it,” Laurent tells him at one point.)
The walk-ons, many played by famous faces, include Valentine (Françoise Lebrun, “The Mother and the Whore”), who plans to join a convent, and Sarah (Édith Scob, “Eyes Without a Face”), who is actually in one. She is the sister of a former lover of Rodolphe’s who committed suicide, an act that he insists was not his fault. Elsewhere, Mathieu Amalric (probably not yet old enough for this part) appears as the father of a young man rejected by Laurent, whose love life is contrasted with Rodolphe’s. In an unexpected musical number, Rodolphe’s niece (Catherine Estrade) and her daughter (Alberta Commaret) sing to the man of the hour: “Why all these women if you loved only one?” It may be part of the point that Rodolphe, an acknowledged cad, can’t see any of these women as more than mirrors for his own ego, but the apparent sexism leaves a bitter taste regardless.
In a scene that adds some texture to the overarching sentimentality, Noël Simsolo turns up as a son Rodolphe didn’t acknowledge. And finally, we meet Marguerite (Catherine Deneuve), Rodolphe’s first love and Laurent’s aunt, whom the protagonist has spent the bulk of the movie idealizing. Despite prominent billing, Deneuve appears in only one scene, shot in a single take, and a subsequent superimposition.
Vecchiali is known for making features outside of polish-friendly settings, but “Le Cancre” has some of clunkiest mixing and cheapest-sounding music this side of “The Room.” (Like Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, Rodolophe sometimes alternates between speaking aloud and in voiceover.) Accordionized riffs on “La Bohème” contribute to the atmosphere of unmerited gravitas.