Laurent Tuel is not the first director to mine France’s long tradition of bande dessinées for inspiration. Some of the more successful cinematic adaptations of popular French graphic novels – Asterix, Lucky Luke and Tintin aside – include Abdellatif Kechiche’s La Vie d”Adele (Blue is the Warmest Colour), the winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Festival. And Manu Larcenet’s prizewinning Le Combat Ordinaire is one of the best. Larcenet himself has described his graphic novel as a story about “an exhausted photographer, a patient girl, everyday horrors and a troublesome cat”. While this simplicity may work on the page, the self-deprecating humour and restless soul searching inherent in the novel does not easily translate to the big screen. Tuel has taken most of the threads of the original work but fails to weave them into a coherent whole. The result is a confusing, half-baked mix of themes and ideas.
Marco (Nicolas Duvauchelle) is a young war photographer who has abandonded his career to live a simple life in the country. Thanks to his cat, he meets the beautiful Emily (Maud Wyler) who works as a veterinary surgeon in the local town and the two start to build a life together. But Marco continues to suffer from the anxiety and panic attacks that have plagued him since he was a small child. His life is further complicated by his father’s (Olivier Perrier) Alzheimer’s disease, a neighbour (Andre Wilms) who is hiding his shady past as a French officer during the Algerian war and the problems he encounters putting together a photographic portrait of dock workers at the St Nazaire port where his father worked for over 40 years.
Tuel turns what should be a life-affirming study of one man’s struggle against depression and the day-to-day problems he faces into a series of individual confrontations with no real resolution. And he misses an opportunity to delve deeper into some of the issues he raises – children coping with an ageing parent with a debilitating mental disorder, increasing unemployment among port workers in France, the rise in popularity of the far right Front National party and the problem of whether or not to start a family. Duvauchelle does a convincing job of conveying Marco’s existential angst and he and Wilms make an attractive, if rather uninspiring, couple. A sporadic voiceover and shaky close ups from a handheld camera only add to the disarray and the only real magic in Le Combat Ordinaire comes from the director of photography, Thomas Bataille, who turns the Dordogne landscape into a thing of great beauty.