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‘Delete History’: Film Review

Anarchic French filmmakers Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern skewer the absurdities of the digital age in this slapdash sendup of so-called modern convenience.

Delete History
Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

If you’ve ever felt frustrated when a website asks you to select photos of traffic lights in order to prove that you’re not a robot, or struggled for a way to keep all your internet passwords straight, then digital-age satire “Delete History” was made with you in mind. Like the spam folder on your Google Mail account, it’s stuffed to bursting with wry observations about how smartphones, social media and other innovations putatively intended to simplify our lives appear to be complicating it instead.

In this laugh-out-loud, low-concept comedy from French directing team Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern (known for renegade road movies “Aaltra” and “Mammuth”), the thinnest of storylines unites a loose collection of gags involving a trio of middle-aged, middle-class neighbors each suffering from a host of 21st-century headaches. The big joke, such as it is, hinges on the idea that they simultaneously reach a snapping point — to péter un câble, in French — where they vow to take on the tech companies that are ruining their lives.

Drowning in debt and unsure how to protect his daughter from cyberbullying at school, lonely widower Bertrand (Denis Podalydès) takes comfort in long, intimate conversations with a Mauritian telemarketer named Miranda. Single mom Marie (comedian Blanche Gardin) didn’t make a penny off the 700-million-viewer viral cat video she made, which makes it tough to pay the ransom a blackmailer (Vincent Lacoste in a game cameo) is asking not to upload a sex tape. And premium-TV bulimic Christine (Corinne Masiero) can’t stop bingeing her favorite series, which got her fired from her day job and isn’t helping her backup as a low-rated ride-share chauffeur.

In addition to the film’s obvious digital targets, “Delete History” comes across as a parody of France’s disgruntled working class (Christine keeps a yellow vest in her glove compartment, a sign that she identifies with the country’s recent economic protests). Although all three own ugly suburban homes in Hauts-de-France (to the north, near the Belgian border) and enjoy the privilege of having phones and cars and personal computers, they’re each just scraping by — like slaves to a consumerist culture, although “slaves” implies some degree of forced labor, and there’s very little of that in evidence.

For the first 80 minutes or so, the three actors do their best to cope with the absurdities of technology, bureaucracy and their own idiocy — all of which are represented in easily relatable scenarios, many of them as little more than one-off setups. In one scene, Benoît Poelvoorde plays an “Alimazone” messenger who nearly suffers a nervous breakdown trying to deliver two dozen water bottles to an online shopper. Later, Marie is impressed to see a teenager with a book and wants to know what he’s reading. “’How to Choose the Right Cell Phone,’” he answers. And so on.

Six years ago, Jason Reitman made a reasonably starry movie focused on a lot of these same concerns called “Men, Women & Children,” and hardly anybody saw it, which suggests it would take a miracle for “Delete History” to make much of an impact in the States. That doesn’t mean Delépine and Kervern’s vaguely out-of-touch, dad-joke version isn’t satisfying in the zero-calorie, aspartame-aftertasting way that a Seinfeld routine can be: No doubt, most of the vignettes they dramatize here would be better suited to stand-up comedy, or broken out into sketches on a show like “Saturday Night Live.”

But it would be remiss not to acknowledge the deeper critique that underlies “Delete History,” made clear when the three friends manage to track down a wild-eyed hacker who calls himself “God” (Bouli Lanners), and even he claims to have no dominion over “the Cloud” — the new artificial intelligence that man has created to outsmart himself. Taking matters into their own hands, the trio divide and conquer.

Marie flies to Silicon Valley, where she infiltrates the data center where virtual sex tapes from around the world are stored on massive hard drives. “My p—y’s in the Cloud!” she screams, making a Borat-style scene of things. Christine hauls a chain saw in to her Uber-esque employer’s office. And Bertrand follows his heart to Mauritania (though Kervern was born there, the locals are depicted like one-dimensional ethnic stereotypes out of a Tintin cartoon).

If “Network” was the hyper-articulate, mad-as-hell takedown of what television had wrought on American culture, then “Delete History” is its slapdash answer for the Facebook/Google/Alimazone generation. The difference — apart from a general ambivalence in matters of lighting, lensing and narrative form: Delépine and Kervern’s offering has a short sell-by date, and isn’t likely to be remembered in 50 years, or five, for that matter. A soundtrack of English-language songs by outsider (analog) musician Daniel Johnston suits the film’s loose form. In a wink to their own oeuvre, the directors cast Michel Houellebecq as a suicidal man (he spent an entire film trying to end his life in their 2014 provocation “Near Death Experience”), although here, they seem to have more hope for the human race.

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‘Delete History’: Film Review

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival, Feb. 24, 2020. Running time: 110 MIN. (Original title: “Effacer l’historique”)

  • Production: (France-Belgium) A Les Films du Worso, No Money Prods. production, in co-production with France 3 Cinema, Pictanovo, Scope Pictures. (Int’l sales: Wild Bunch Int'l, Paris.) Producers: Sylvie Pialat, Benoît Quainon, Benoît Delépine, Gustave Kervern.
  • Crew: Directors, writers: Benoît Delépine, Gustave Kervern. Camera: Hugues Poulain. Editor: Stéphane Guillot Elmadjian.
  • With: Blanche Gardin, Denis Podalydès, Corinne Masiero , Vincent Lacoste, Benoît Poelvoorde, Bouli Lanners, Vincent Dedienne, Philippe Rebbot, Michel Houellebecq, Clémentine Peyricot, Lucas Mondher. (French, English dialogue)
  • Music By: