Based on the 2013 novel Folles De Django by Alexis Salatko, Etienne Comar’s fictional account of popular gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt’s wartime experiences in occupied France singularly fails to capture the high-octane energy of the Belgian-born Romani musician. This is a disappointing debut for Comar who is in the director’s chair for the first time. He is better known as the writer-producer who worked on 2010’s Of Gods and Men. Reda Kateb, in the lead role, rarely fails to put the stamp of excellence on any film, but even he struggles to bring to life Django’s character. The guitarist lived for his music and the best scenes are undoubteldy those where Django takes to the stage with his swing band. Kateb does a good job of showcasing the guitarist’s exceptional talent – his unique playing technique and breathless rythmic compositions. Unfortunately events away from the stage have less impact and are flat and lack focus.
The film opens in 1943 in occupied France where Django Reinhardt is the nightly star of the Folies Bergères while his Romani compatriots are rounded up and deported by the Germans. When German officials want to organise a tour of Germany for Django to possibly play before the Führer himself, he decides to flee to Switzerland with the help of one of his French admirers, and sometime lover, the fictional Louise de Klerk (Cécile de France). While awaiting safe passage to Switzerland, Django and his pregnant wife Naguine (Hungarian singer Beata Palya) and aged mother Negros (Bimbam Merstein) are forced to bide their time in Thonon-les-Bains on the shores of Lake Leman where he is welcomed into a small community of Roma living in an uneasy alliance with the local townspeople and Nazi occupiers.
All credit to Comar for highlighting the plight of Roma people at the hands of Nazi Germany. It is estimated some 500,000 died in concentration camps during the second world war. But It’s a shame he has adopted such a heavy-handed approach to portraying the two opposing sides in this drama. The Roma are a tight-knit group who welcome Django and his family with open arms willing to share what little they have, while the German oppressors are cruel, humourless despots. And unlike Django’s music, Comar’s film never takes the audience to a higher level.