Directed by: Etienne Comar
Written by: Etienne Comar, Alexis Salatko
Based on the book Folles de Django by: Alexis Salatko
Starring: Reda Kateb, Cécile De France, Bea Palya, Bimbam Merstein, Ulrich Brandhoff, Xavier Beauvois
Produced by: Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier
Music by: Django Reinhardt, The Rosenberg Trio, Warren Ellis
Cinematography by: Christophe Beaucarne
Editing by: Monica Coleman
Opening Night Selection of the 67th Berlin International Film Festival
Until last year, the strongest film ever made about the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt was a little-seen Woody Allen experiment from 1999 called Sweet and Lowdown.
In this peculiar fusion of spoof and historical drama, Sean Penn plays (the fictitious) Emmet Ray, a hard-drinking musician who considers himself second-best in the world only to the legendary Reinhardt. So great is Ray’s reverence for his hero that, while we never see the man on camera, Reinhardt’s music fuses into the soft spine of the picture. By the time Penn’s character falls guitar over heels for a mute fan (Samantha Morton, in an outstanding Oscar-nominated performance), we have become fervent Reinhardtians, too.
That was 1999, and now we find ourselves in 2018. These days, it is fair to say that the Allen name is tainted for those of us in the movie industry, which is why we owe Etienne Comar, the director and co-writer (with Alexis Salatko) of the new Reinhardt biopic, Django, a debt of gratitude simply for rescuing his subject from a poisonous association.
As a longtime fan of Reinhardt’s – Bluebird rereleased his masterful Djangology in 2005, when I was a musically voracious teenager – I was shocked to learn that Comar’s is the first major motion picture treatment of the mythic artist’s life.
“Better late than never,” jazz historians might think, and to a certain extent, I agree. But Comar’s and Salatko’s work is neither a definitive nor a perfect work. Michael Dregni once claimed that Reinhardt was “the greatest guitarist who ever lived,” hyperbole that the filmmakers reflect through the unceasing praise of supporting characters (members of the Reinhardt family were also involved in the production.)
Certainly, Reda Kateb, the spectacularly intense French actor who portrays Reinhardt at the height of his career in the 1940s, carries in his performance a vivid arrogance.
Born to a Manouche Romani family in Belgium, Reinhardt spent his life ostracized first by the French for his heritage, and ultimately by German occupying forces for playing “monkey music.” Yet in Kateb’s portrayal, he is openly and frequently defiant, even when the lives of his band, the Quintette, his wife Naguine (Bea Palya), and his bombastic mother (Bimbam Merstein) are collaterally damaged.
Throughout the second World War, Reinhardt’s advocates and lovers – the latter represented by the angelic Cécile De France, of The Kid with The Bike – strive to protect him from certain death: by his own excessive drinking; by starvation in a wintry gypsy camp; or by (increasingly likely) Nazi execution. At one point he is even offered a well-paying gig in Germany, performing for Goebbels. He declines to “play for the Krauts”.
Is this heroism, or is it stupidity and selfishness? Comar and Salatko’s script, which takes Reinhardt from childhood to the end of his life (he died young, at 43), fails to fully address this question. Only De France’s Louise de Klerk, his on-again, off-again mistress, has the temerity to confront him for his hubris, and even then, only after his impertinence threatens the safety of a Nazi resistance encampment.
De France brings to these scenes a soulful vigor absent in Reinhardt’s life, and in large part from the film itself. Comar’s Reinhardt – already legendary for his collaborations with Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Stéphane Grappelli by the time Kateb takes the role – has had his edges scrapped off by trauma, to the point of personal and physical numbness.
Much gravity is given to the residual effects of burns across Reinhardt’s left side, including damaged nerve endings in his hands. Otherwise, Kateb leans out of the role, detaching Reinhardt from his pregnant wife and ambitious bandmates. This is a natural choice: the only person his character shows any care for is de Klerk, after all.
Unfortunatelyly, Kateb – who is never less than commanding when he speaks – uses his affliction too symbolically. His imitative strumming is twitchy and actorly, a facsimile of authentic performance. Compare his guitar playing to Oscar Isaac’s in Inside Llewyn Davis, for example, and you wind up without a sense of Reinhardt’s renowned artistry. It will not be enough for the casual viewer to latch onto, I fear.
Reading this kind of criticism of the first true Reinhardt biopic, fans may be excused for thinking I’ve missed the point: to remind not only of his primordial gifts and historical influence as a musician, but of the extraordinary capacity for talent that can flourish in a community Othered by prejudice. Django’s is a story of art, sure, but also of absence – the flame of his legend pales against Robert Johnson’s, B.B. King’s, or Muddy Waters’.
It is to Comar’s credit that Django reinforces these themes without the use of a cinematic cudgel to drive them home. Yes, Reinhardt is subjected to the usual racial slurs and abuses of justice, and the Anglo-Aryan Europeans in his film are almost pedantically evil.
But Comar, who makes his feature directorial debut here after producing artful work by other filmmakers, including Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and Men (2011) and Abderrahme Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014), is nothing if not a paragon of good taste. His Germans are less cold-blooded murderers than sexually repressed creeps and cretins with malevolent haircuts, evidence (I suspect) of the film being produced at a moment of elevated white nationalism in France.
The superb casting is one representation of Comar’s sense of artistry, and there are several others. His cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne’s lighting scheme eschews tacky vintage techniques or sudden flourishes of the camera; it is quiet, solid, handsome work. And Monica Coleman’s editing (mostly) protects Kateb from Ashlee Simpson-ing his concerts.
Nonetheless, I must be clear in saying that I have not misunderstood the film’s purpose. I simply believe it has a different one than its surface message purports: to sell the devilishly pleasurable original motion picture soundtrack, with new music by Warren Ellis and several major Reinhardt numbers performed by The Rosenberg Trio. No dancing allowed, however.
Under The Milky Way presents Django, a film by Etienne Comar, in theaters in Los Angeles Friday, January 19.