There’s a reason the “everything is connected” brand of big screen storytelling is widely mocked. Although the likes of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia managed to find profundity in the semi-interlinking lives of vast ensembles, films such as Paul Haggis’ Crash and the collected works of Alejandro González Iñárritu have made this sub genre synonymous with heavy handed social commentary and overwrought melodrama.
Bloody Oranges, the sophomore feature from Jean-Christophe Meurisse, is too substantial in its jet black satirisation of social and generational divides in Macron’s France to feel like a mere parody of this genre. But it’s not entirely successful in its comic approach, often relying on tiresome shocks to land cheap punchlines and thread its stories together – the darkness of its comedy so overblown, it can’t help but feel like a deliberate parody of Iñárritu’s brand of bleak socially conscious storytelling.
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Let’s break the stories down one by one. First off, we’re introduced to an elderly couple on the brink of bankruptcy, who have come up with an effective get rich quick scheme to pay off their debts: win a “rock dancing” competition, and then sell the camper van awarded as the big prize. Their son, aspiring lawyer Alexandre (Alexandre Steiger), is currently attempting to climb the ladder at work, which puts him into contact with the government’s finance minister (Stranger by the Lake’s Christophe Paou), who is attempting to implement controversial pension reforms while hiding the fact he’s stored hundreds of thousands of Euros in offshore accounts. Elsewhere in town, a teenage girl (Lilith Grasmuth) is being continuously stalked by a sinister older man, who holds a bitter resentment against the government.
If there is a flaw to Bloody Oranges, it’s that the simple genre pleasures (such as a bloody revenge plot in the third act) feel out of place next to a scathing criticism of a government that many in France believe is exclusively governing “for the rich”. The widely despised pension reform plan referenced here is one of several policies Emmanuel Macron’s government attempted to implement, the outrage at which eventually led to the yellow vest protests that spread across France in late 2018. The sharpest moment of satire in the film appears in a scene where the finance minister chairs a meeting with several civil servants about what cost cutting schemes they could implement to help pass these bills, with bonus points given for any ideas that piss off both the left and the right so they come off looking like they occupy the moral high ground.
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It’s a sequence that can be mentioned in the same breath as the best of Armando Iannucci’s work, and only makes later scenes where the director emphasises the rivalry between the government and the people in grizzlier ways feel all the more misjudged. Meurisse’s approach to social satire extends beyond a middle finger to the En Marche government and its economic policies, with the third act introducing a revenge plot that captures national attention, directly evoking the #BalanceTonPorc movement, the French equivalent to MeToo. While the director aims to generate some catharsis here, it does feel like the product of a filmmaker trying to have his cake and eat it.
This stylish revenge plot takes place after an earlier scene where a sexual assault is played for laughs, seemingly because that happens to a detestable male character – and while dark comedy is in plentiful supply, this misjudged moment makes for a more ideologically confusing work than the broad anti-Macronism elsewhere would suggest. Perhaps, as a dark comedy that opens with a minor character lambasting including disabled people in a dance contest, the director wouldn’t want his film to be analysed as a lofty satire when he had more provocative (and not to mention lowbrow) intentions. It’s just a shame that his film works best when it operates on this level.
There are many effective moments of social satire in Bloody Oranges, but these sit too awkwardly next to a more outwardly audacious dark comedy. It’s a film that sets out to shock, not fully realising it has the brains to deliver something much more substantial.
Written by Alistair Ryder
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