It takes more than just watching “Oh Mercy” to understand exactly why Arnaud Desplechin was drawn to the subject matter of his latest movie, a reasonably engrossing police procedural with roots in a 2008 TV documentary. Something of an unexpected detour in the veteran director’s weighty career, the film combines multiple strands to paint a sympathetic picture of a precinct and especially its captain as they investigate an elderly woman’s murder. By the director’s own admission, his main fascination is with the two women who commit the crime, and indeed he spends a great deal of time presenting their interrogations together with a re-creation of the deed, yet his stated desire to humanize the couple holds less interest than the policemen’s personalities and their interplay with each other and the community.
Desplechin’s long-held attraction to administrative details means it’s not such a stretch to see him turn to police routine. It also makes sense given his intense cinephilia, and there’s much in “Oh Mercy” reminiscent of American cop films from the 1950s, though he states categorically that his only guide was Hitchcock’s “The Wrong Man.” Less expected is just how much the film recalls any number of TV crime series of recent years, as if this were the pilot for a new show set in Desplechin’s gritty hometown of Roubaix, next to the Belgian border. While likely to appeal to a broader segment of the population than 2017’s “Ismael Ghosts,” it’s hard to imagine “Mercy” getting much traction internationally given its sheer unremarkability, notwithstanding enjoyable elements.
Christmas lights barely prettify the sober working-class streets of Roubaix, a high-crime city where whole neighborhoods are considered off limits. Violence takes no break for the holiday, and neither does police captain Yakoub Daoud (Roschdy Zem), a calm, intelligent chief with a bemused, understated manner and a knack for nosing out guilt. His team, including newbie investigator Louis Cotterel (Antoine Reinartz), investigates a torched car, an armed robbery at a bakery, and an arson attack. Among those questioned about the latter are Claude (Léa Seydoux) and Marie (Sara Forestier), a cagey couple reluctant to identify people they saw in the area for fear of retribution. Claude finally fingers a couple of guys, but their alibis are airtight, calling into question her reasons for setting up the two men who, truth be told, aren’t exactly angels.
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Other cases take over, including the disappearance of teenager Sophie Duhamel (Maïssa Taleb), the rape of 15-year-old Agathe (Madison Copin), and then a murder, the latter of an elderly neighbor of Claude and Marie’s. Already seen as unreliable witnesses, the two women become suspects; both claim innocence, but when separated, Claude lays the blame on Marie, the mousier, less intelligent of the pair.
What follows is a classic good cop/bad cop game, with Daoud steadily coaxing in one room and Louis hammering away in the other. What makes these interrogation scenes reasonably enjoyable is the contrast between the two cops’ styles, yet there’s never any doubt about what results they’re going to get, and Desplechin doesn’t exactly breathe new life into the policemen’s double act. Marie, untethered when separated from Claude and shocked that her lover is placing all guilt at her feet, sort of crumbles, leading to an extended — very extended — sequence where the two are made to re-create the crime at the scene.
Although Desplechin claims his main interest is to get inside the two women’s characters, pushing away moral absolutes about guilt and innocence (yes, “Crime and Punishment” is a key influence), the couple come off as the least interesting people on screen. Marie is like a battered wife clearly under her partner’s thrall, while Claude is an amoral bully convinced she can put on a good performance of blamelessness. Even before they’re made to re-stage the murder, the audience is ready to move on, perhaps to one of the other cases with personalities that hold more interest.
It’s not just a question of whether they’re sympathetic or not: Given that Daoud is by far the most charismatic figure, it feels like a waste to focus attention elsewhere. Desplechin spoon-feeds just enough information at regular intervals to leave us wanting to know more: Why did all his family return to Algeria? Why does his incarcerated nephew hate him so much? Why doesn’t he have a partner? The way these questions are set up furthers the sense of “Oh Mercy” (a very bad title with no discernible connection to the film’s themes) as a pilot for a series, and it’s for Daoud alone (which equally means the always marvelous Roschdy Zem) that people would be tuning back in. Not for Louis, whose over-eagerness to make an impression, crossed with a hefty dose of Catholic duty, leaves the character feeling trapped in a limiting profile, notwithstanding confessional moments in which he’s heard writing self-critical letters to his father.
More successful is the general atmosphere, not only within the police station (again, likable without any especially distinguishing characteristics) but even more so the city itself, unsurprising given it’s Desplechin’s hometown. Seen as a shadowy place of narrow brick houses and murkily lit streets where its multiethnic population scratches out lives of alternately quiet and noisy desperation, Roubaix can be considered, alongside Daoud, the most interesting character of all, and Daoud’s history with the community adds a further layer absent in the main investigating strand.
The crew is largely composed of the director’s regulars, including DP Irina Lubtchansky, conjuring quietly unsettling images from Roubaix’s nighttime streets, hinting of untold melancholy behind the plain façades. Grégoire Hetzel’s lush orchestrations have probably never been so prominently used, their mournful Mahler-like strings adding an unmistakable old-fashioned patina to the proceedings. The perhaps unwanted parallel to TV dramas isn’t helped by an opening text affirming that the crimes are real and victims exist, leaving audiences inevitably expecting the percussive beats of “Law & Order” to come with the opening credits.