One of the unique benefits of writing about films online is that you tend to get requests at random for movies you’ve never heard of. I’ve been super jaded about Hollywood blockbusters for a good portion of my life, so I tend to not review as many films as I would like to since major releases don’t interest me. With low-budget, independent releases appearing in my inbox every so often, I began wondering if I should step outside of my comfort zone and stop complaining like a crotchety old man about how Marvel sucks.
That is what led me to Like a Dirty French Novel. I responded to an inquiry about attending a premiere and was given a screener link to review the picture. Knowing literally nothing about what I was stepping into, I figured I would finally pull the bandage off and start highlighting otherwise invisible films on Flixist. What’s the worst that could happen?
You don’t need to answer that question. I’ll just say that at least this isn’t as horrible as Werewolves Within.
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Like a Dirty French Novel
Director: Michael Cuenca
Release Date: August 28, 2021 (Dances With Films)
I’m sure everyone currently alive doesn’t need a reminder of the COVID-19 pandemic that is still wreaking havoc on the world. With the last year and a half having radically changed our day-to-day rituals, we’ve seen a few movies attempt to tell a story about individuals living in our current predicament. That’s part of what Like a Dirty French Novel is about. Starting things off with a message about the pandemic, it soon becomes clear that this film is a movie about making movies within restrictive circumstances.
That’s the deeper reading, though, and possibly something I told myself to stop my mind from going off the rails. The general plot of Like a Dirty French Novel is that of a Tarantino-esque non-linear narrative. Split between five different chapters with several interludes, we hear the stories of numerous different characters and their troubles with life, love, and money as they attempt to find a semblance of normalcy during the pandemic.
In a cold open, the film begins with two shadowed characters speaking what seems like gibberish before a woman walks into frame to say, “and then there were three.” They walk around the desert before we’re treated to an unintentionally hilarious scene of characters screaming about being stuck in place. Apparently, they are trapped in quicksand, but this is obviously a budgetary constraint that is mixed with a grindhouse vibe to be cheesy and ridiculous.
Soon after without any explanation, the film cuts to its first story. Hue (Robby Valls) lives with his ex-girlfriend, Crystal (Jennifer Daley), and the two are having a rough time becoming acclimated to the pandemic. Driving each other crazy, which is partially what led to their separation, Hue gets a call from some random woman (Laura Urgelles) and starts to divulge a ton of personal information. I don’t know why the film feels the need to start chatting about masturbation, but these calls grab the attention of Crystal and agitate her.
Over the course of roughly 20 minutes, we learn more about Hue, get some background on Crystal, and then see the two fighting before the film shifts to the next story. It’s a bit scatterbrained but does feature a few bits of interesting editing where frames of Hues heading moving are stripped out to give a more frenetic feel.
In the next story, a man named Forester Dooley (Grant Moninger) has grown tired of his wife, Janine (Samantha Nelson). Seeing no way out, he gets a call from the same mysterious woman that troubled Hue then concocts a plan to get his estranged brother to take his place while he gets away. Just as soon as he is walking out in the city, Forester gets kidnapped by two random robbers that believe he is his brother.
Not wishing to listen to his story, the two throw him into a car and start driving down the road. Forester, in some incredibly amateurish acting from Moninger, attempts to act scared when a bit of serendipity comes his way. The robbers’ car blows a tire, forcing the duo to step outside. Forester attempts to go for the key but is pulled out of the car. Just as the robbers are holding him at gunpoint, a woman runs by and steals the car.
Now we’re into the first interlude, which can be summed up ridiculously quickly. A woman named Esma (Brittany Samson) is obsessed with some erotic serial that features a stripper named The Silver Street Fox. She calls a warehouse to inquire about obtaining a magazine but doesn’t have internet due to the pandemic. Once rejected, that same mysterious caller gives Esma a call and delivers eight copies of the magazine.
Onto story three, where a woman named Lane (Amanda Viola) begins going to a local park to try and get out of the house. Talking to herself in an attempt to stay sane, she runs into a man named Jake (Aaron Bustos), and the two start to cook up a romance. Days go by and after lending her a book, Jake disappears for a bit. One day, Lane returns to the park to find a bicycle set up as a memorial to Jake, the man having come to an unknown fate.
Lane then runs into Crystal, who is secretly working with someone else to con her out of money that she happened to find in that stolen car earlier. Yes, in a move similar to Crash or Babel, Like a Dirty French Novel is now planting the seeds of an interconnected story. Lane was the woman that jumped into the car Forester was being kidnapped in. When she got out of dodge, she opened the trunk to find a dying man inside and he gifted her a bag of money.
Okay, got all of that? Well, that’s right where the film stops being interesting and leans more into its grindhouse aesthetic instead of developing things further. The rest of the movie can best be described as a fever dream because there’s this moment where Crystal is dancing for her sleazy boss and I’m not sure what happened to the careful plotting from before.
I say careful, but everything about Like a Dirty French Novel feels like the kind of slapdash effort that would be cobbled together during a pandemic. It’s certainly a bold move to focus everything on our current world and not dance around the fact that people should be wearing masks (it actually comes up as a plot point), but it’s the only hook that this movie has.
In all honesty, Like a Dirty French Novel reminds me a lot of my friend’s student film from college. Knowing he had an incredibly contrived and predictable plot, he started throwing in random editing techniques and playing scenes out of order to morph the idea of his film into a mystery rather than a linear narrative.
In the press release for Like a Dirty French Novel, Pulp Fiction was name-dropped. That was one of my thoughts by the end of everything. I’d hardly call this movie on the same level as that 90s classic, but there was a clear inspiration from Tarantino’s mind-bender. You can certainly engage viewers by obfuscating the truth until the very end. For that to work, however, the acting needs to be convincing and all of the various threads should tie together.
That is where everything falls apart here. Try as I might to get into things, the low-budgetness of the entire affair prevented me from ever doing so. It doesn’t help that even with the non-linear approach, most of the characters never amount to anything. There’s no revelation that the phone lady was the one pulling the strings or anything that subverts your understanding of the main players. A few are mangled off-screen, for crying out loud.
I’m not sorry that I took the chance to watch Like a Dirty French Novel, but I clearly should have done some more research before agreeing to a screener. While having literally zero expectations can lead you to a hidden masterpiece, it can also cause you to stumble through a project that has absolutely nothing for you. I can appreciate certain aspects of this film, but it ultimately doesn’t come together in any interesting fashion.