Magloire (Paul Hamy) is a man on a journey to nowhere, or more accurately, Nowhereland. He lives at night, on the run, stumbling onto a dying man and thence into the clutches of a menacing band of gangsters. His face looks innocent, but he is a pragmatic executioner. At first merely held hostage, he is soon an accomplice. A heist goes wrong. The gang, along with their molls, board a phantom cargo ship. They carry a heavy box, a troublesome legacy of their heist: enough polonium to, likely, destroy all of humanity.
The cargo ship’s captain (Diogo Dória) recedes in the shadows, and Kurtz (Damien Bonnaire) comes to dominate. The lugubrious sailors begin their journey into the unknown. To say that they are navigating into the Heart of Darkness is probably too obvious; on Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre, even more so. Time perhaps to get one’s coat. The dark seas are cold and forbidding.
Shot in black and white, in glorious chiaroscuro, this latest film by cult director FJ Ossang is a delight. A dark adventure story, and replete, for those happy to reference-spot, with literary, cinematic, artistic and philosophical allusions. Replete is probably an understatement.
The cultural luggage of this film is bursting at the seams, and yet carried lightly. The film is deeply enjoyable. It is visually heady, a feast of black and white imagery, and especially of endless seascapes – the darkest parts of the image black as the blackest ink. Caspar David Friedrich? Check. Odilon Redon? Check. Jean Cocteau? Indeed. Jean-Pierre Melville? Of course. Bresson? Bien sûr. And even a soupçon of Pedro Costa.
The key to the story is the French Uruguayan writer Lautréamont, and his long poem, Les Chants de Maldoror. This, and Lautréamont’s notion of the dangerous philosophical journey, are at the heart of the treacherous sea voyage Magloire and his acolytes have irreversibly embarked on – much to their chagrin.
Lautréamont was influenced by the Gothic, and subsequently his work had a significant influence on French surrealism. All these imaginary worlds are redeployed in 9 Fingers. Ossang has worked with remarkable cinematographers – Darius Khondji in the past, and here, Simon Roca, to create a powerful visual universe so strong that it becomes impossible to imagine other realities beyond it.
Ossang has assembled a very fine cast, including Diogo Dória, well-known for his work with Manoel de Oliveira and Eugène Green. The femmes fatales in the story, Drella (Lisa Hartmann) and Gerda (Elvire) ring the only small note of regret in this otherwise deeply rewarding film. We see, and hear, too little of them. Within the genres and directors whose influence is so visible in 9 Fingers, it is rare for femmes fatales to be quite so ancillary; Cocteau, Bresson or Melville would not have placed Maria Casares, for example, into such a modest box.
The explanation for the film’s title, 9 Fingers can be found in the film. The cruel playfulness implied by the title is just one facet of a remarkable and enjoyable gangster-adventure story.
Director, Writer: F.J. Ossang
Cinematography: Simon Roca
Cast: Paul Hamy, Damien Bonnard, Gaspard Ulliel, Pascal Greggory, Lionel Tua, Alexis Manenti, Lisa Hartman, Elvire, Diogo Doria
First published on Screenwords, October 2017