Benoit Jacquot’s “A Tout de Suite” is set in the 1970s, so it’s supposed to be a period piece in purely narrative terms. But it’s also a nostalgia trip from the cinematic perspective. The story, about a bored bourgeois girl who goes off with a handsome, exotic-looking French Moroccan on the lam after robbing a bank and killing a clerk, is highly reminiscent of some of the best-known examples of the New Wave. And visually, with its black-and-white cinematography juxtapositioning smoothly evocative images with grittily jittery shots, it’s obviously an attempt to imitate that fifties-and-sixties era of French filmmaking. From a purely technical perspective, the picture is certainly a successful imitation. But that’s about all it is. A deliberate lack of characterization and an unwillingness to bother with even the slightest hint of motivation leave it an arid and ultimately pointless exercise in style, marked by a lead performance of such blankness that it perfectly encapsulates the emptiness of the movie as a whole.
The central figure is Lili, a Parisian art student played with an absolute minimum of emotion and variety by Isild Le Besco, a blonde non-bombshell more inclined to smirk than smile. She’s obviously bored with her upper-middle class life (nice apartment, largely oblivious father and mostly absent mother, high-performing older sister) and cuts classes when her clubbing keeps her up late. One day she and a schoolmate meet a fellow in a bar, who in turn invites them to join him and a business partner, the aforementioned French Moroccan Bada (Ouassini Embarek)–blandly handsome and even blander in terms of personality–that night. Before long Lili and the exotic Bada are back rustling the sheets in her room and she’s become intoxicated with him, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he’s nearly mute and is otherwise as undemonstrative as she is. One day she gets a farewell call from him: he’s in the middle of a bank robbery, one of his partners and a clerk have died, the police have surrounded the place, and he expects to die. As it turns out, though, he and his surviving accomplice Alain (Nicolas Duvauchelle) use their hostages to get away, and before long the two are holed up in the girl’s room. When Alain’s squeeze Joelle (Laurence Cordier) shows up with her car, the quartet take off on a jaunt to sell the stolen cash–first by train to Spain, then by boat to North Africa, and finally by air to Greece. During the trip there’s occasional sex, lots of the casual nudity characteristic of such Gallic on-the-run flicks, and plenty of jostling about to conceal the money under clothes to get past customs officials. (In such circumstances Bada proves much more interested in his own well-being than Lili’s, but that doesn’t appear to bother her.)
Obviously the film has a lot in common with some of the touchstone pictures of the New Wave, but it’s hard to say whether it should be taken as a homage to “Breathless” and its ilk or a glum refutation of their spirit. There’s plenty of bed- and continent-hopping in “A Tout de Suite,” but the tempo is unremittingly sluggardly and the characters–with the exception of the volatile, frenzied Alain–tediously passive. When Lili winds up alone and penniless in Athens, abandoned by her fellow travelers to save their skins, she falls into a near-catatonic state, but since her attitude has been so uncommunicative until then, there really doesn’t seem to be much change. (The ease with which she’s “befriended” by a succession of people–first an airport trawler who turns out to be a virtual pimp, then a divorced guy who hires her as a so-called nanny, and finally a shop girl who offers her a job and a place to stay, though not without expectation of repayment–takes the movie into different, but not significantly more invigorating, territory.) And in striving for closure the epilogue goes, surprisingly, for unearned sentiment.
The French title, of course, can be translated as “At Once” or “Right Now.” And while you’re watching it, that’s when you’ll want this stylish but oddly pretentious and essentially vacuous road movie to end.