I feel like I might have appreciated Rock’n Roll more if I was familiar with French pop culture and the country’s film industry. Writer, director, and star Guillaume Canet packs his comedy with real-life French celebrities playing surreal caricatures of themselves. Marion Cotillard (Canet’s real-life partner) portrays a French actress par excellence, so committed to an upcoming role that she speaks in exaggerated Quebecois patois for weeks to prepare; she’ll have it down when she goes French-Canadian Super Saiyan, which is one of the film’s most memorable set pieces.
Many of the other people in the movie I just had no idea who they were and how they were playing with their personas. I do understand the drives of narcissism, celebrity, vanity, and the desire to be young, though. Beyond the French film in-jokes, that’s the primary focus of Rock’n Roll, with 44-year-old Canet the primary target of ridicule.
Le langue du midlife crises est universalle.
Director: Guillaume Canet
Release Date: February 15, 2017 (France)
While making a drama about a pastor and his daughter, Guillaume’s younger co-star Camille Rowe mentions he’s of an older generation of French actors that her friends no longer find sexy. He becomes extremely self-conscious about his age and how people think of him, and embarks on a journey of self-destructive narcissism in the quest to be younger and more rock n roll. Canet allows himself to be a hapless buffoon as this goes on, and he’s completely oblivious to how silly he is. Such is the power of this celebrity vanity. In movies about the elderly acting like younger people, there’s a sense of comic nobility. Look at that old man drive like a 25-year-old racecar driver; look at that old man lead a tango with a woman one-third his age. In movies about middle-aged people acting younger, filmmakers often treat their 40-something heroes as clowns.
For the first half of Rock’n Roll, Canet sustains an industry satire that consistently bites at Guillaume’s ego. He falls further and further into a pathetic spiral of vanity, and can’t recognize how pitiful it makes him look to Marion and the French public at large. Rather than learn some life lesson about aging gracefully, Guillaume doesn’t learn. Vanity can metastasize. At that point Rock’n Roll shifts from satire to an off-the-rails farce, and I’m not sure it works. Sure, it subverts the explicit and implicit moralizing common in mid-life crises narratives, but are the 40-something clowns that senseless? Or maybe that’s the point, and the indictment is about the persistent cycle of oblivious buffoonery that so many stars fall into and never escape.
I guess I’m of two minds on Rock’n Roll, and it at least leaves me curious about Canet’s other movies he’s directed and the tone they strike. I’m also curious about my own desire for moralizing in this movie. Would that have made a difference, or maybe I should I just sit back and try to laugh. But am I laughing with the caricature or at some pitiable analog for so many stars who fell?