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‘Selfie’: SXSW Film Review

This SXSW-programmed French portmanteau comedy sends up the perils of online living to alternately sharp and slight effect.

Selfie

Many a screenwriter has cursed the advent of cellphones and the internet in the last 30 years, as they must contrive ever more original ways of stranding their characters and depriving them of contacts and information: the distinctly 21st-century peril of disconnection. As compensation, however, this technology has gifted them with a world of new ways for characters to seduce, pursue and destroy each other. In vehicles that range from the embarrassingly sanctimonious (“Men, Women and Children”) to the eerily funny (“Ingrid Goes West”), the cellphone has emerged as the go-to supervillain of the age.

The various ways in which that humble device can shatter lives, egos and relationships are impishly explored in “Selfie,” a French portmanteau comedy that, for all its savage social insinuations, still lands pretty lightly. Its faintly interwoven vignettes point up the hazards of extremely-online living not with a wagging finger, but a distinctly Gallic “what are ya gonna do” shrug. The onscreen subtitle of the film, after all, is “On the influence of new media on good people”: Affection is the predominant sentiment coloring most of these broad mini-farces, though “Selfie” cuts deepest when it also cuts coldest. The best shorts here feel like they could morph into tart, probing features; others play like New Yorker cartoons. Originally set to screen at SXSW, this droll diversion is instead bowing online as part of the festival’s Amazon Prime program — a change in plan that is nothing if not thematically on point.

All five directors credited on this rather casually threaded collection are male, which seems a bit of an oversight considering how many of the shorts here deal with the effect of technology on modern dating politics. At least Marc Fitoussi’s “Le Troll,” starring Elsa Zylberstein as a Luddite literature teacher whose Twitter-dissing of an inarticulate celebrity comedian (Max Boublil) takes an unexpected romantic turn, expressly takes a woman’s point of view through that particular minefield. Fitoussi made the feathery Isabelle Huppert starrers “Copacabana” and “Paris Follies,” and his short brings a similar note of wistful whimsy to proceedings, though its intriguing manipulation of online anonymity for the purposes of romantic wish fulfilment never quite lands the killer psychosexual blow of the recent, comparably themed Juliette Binoche drama “Who You Think I Am.”

To international arthouse audiences, the most prominent name here may be Thomas Bidegain, best-known as Jacques Audiard’s regular co-writer. In line with his reputation, he delivers the most piercing and satirically venomous contribution, presented piecemeal as a framing narrative rather than a single short. That structural choice enhances the spiraling sense of desolation in “Vlog,” which tracks the breakdown of a middle-class family in the wake of going viral, to cruelly hilarious effect. When their heartfelt vlogs detailing their son Luke’s struggle with an orphan disease rack up millions of views, parents Fred (Maxence Tual) and Stephanie (Blanche Gardin) are initially overwhelmed by the kindness of online strangers, not to mention the lavish gifts and invitations that come flooding in from corporate make-a-wish types. Yet when Luke is miraculously cured, the offers dry up as swiftly as the vlog views dwindle; Fred and Stephanie’s ever more desperate attempts to reignite the web’s interest make for wince-inducing viewing.

If unfolded at feature length, “Vlog” could build to a volume of vicious tragicomic intensity worthy of Michael Haneke, down to its faintly absurd hard-left turn of a twist. In short form, it’s suitably wry and dry, though the films it brackets all wind up looking a bit blunter by comparison. Tristan Aurouet’s “2.6/5” begins mordantly as a takedown of the inhumane algorithms of dating apps, buoyed by Finnegan Oldfield’s tense, fidgety performance as a gawky nerd who hacks the system to ruinous effect — though it grows less believable, and thus less resonant, the further it pushes the joke.

Cyril Gelblat’s “Recommandé Pour Vous” pokes mild fun at the invasiveness of targeted advertising, but feels likewise overstretched, while Vianney Lebasque’s “Smileaks,” which examines the fallout of a global data leak on a genteel wedding party, meshes the tones of “Black Mirror” and bedroom farce to somewhat strained effect — a cooler touch is called for than the bright, sitcom-style lensing and scoring that binds all the film’s segments, to variably apt effect. “Selfie” is a mixed bag, like most such omnibus projects, yet at its sharpest, it self-reflexively admits to the banality and disposability implied by its title: If one image here doesn’t tickle you, it’s easy enough to swipe to the next.

‘Selfie’: SXSW Film Review

Reviewed online, London, April 30, 2020. Running time: 108 MIN.

  • Production: (France) A Mandoline Films, Chez Georges Prods. presentation in co-production with France 2 Cinema, Tcham Films, Nexus Factor, Umedia, in association with uFund. (Int'l sales: WTFilms, Paris.) Producers: Adrien Desanges, Julien Sibony.
  • Crew: Directors: Tristan Aurouet, Thomas Bidegain, Marc Fitoussi, Cyril Gelblat, Vianney Lebasque. Screenplay: Giulio Callegari, Noé Debré, Hélène Lombard, Julien Sibony, Bertrand Soulier. Camera: Pierre-Hugues Galien. Editors: Stephan Couturier, Claire Fieschi. Music: Laurent Perez Del Mar.
  • With: Blanche Gardin, Maxence Tual, Elsa Zylberstein, Max Boublil, Finnegan Oldfield, Fanny Sidney, Manu Payet, Sebastien Chassagne, Mariama Gueye, Thomas De Pourquery, Alma Jodorowsky.
  • Music By: