Shot in a week during the pandemic, and set during one, Like a Dirty French Novel consists of a series of linked stories dubbed chapters and interludes. Director Mike Cuenca (Jerry Powell & the Delusions of Grandeur) and co-writers Ashlee Elfman (Damien’s Quest) and Dan Rojay (I’ll Be Around) however don’t want to tell stories about the pandemic but, as the title card tells us, “a result of its social disruption.”.
The film’s prologue follows three men as they follow a woman whose eyes glow in the dark to a bad end while onlookers in cheap Halloween masks look on.
Then we meet Hue (Robby Valls, ErOddity(s) 2) and Crystal (Jennifer Daley, Blood Born, Dadda: Donald and Daisy Duck Adventure) a couple whose relationship is dead and rotting, but are stuck under the same roof due to the pandemic. Hue begins getting calls from a woman (Laura Urgelles) he doesn’t know but who obviously knows him.
Next, we meet Forester (Grant Moninger, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) who is getting calls from the same woman as Hue. He also has the misfortune of being mistaken for his twin brother by a pair of inept hitmen.
Lane (Amanda Viola, We Take the Low Road) is lonely in her new home until she meets Jake (Aaron Bustos) at the park. Things are looking up until he’s apparently killed in an accident. And she meets his girlfriend, Crystal, who was cheating on Hue with him.
Speaking of Hue, he’s searching for Crystal who has now also disappeared. As he searches, the connection between all of the characters finally starts to emerge.
Mixed in with all of this are short vignettes involving a female cosplayer and her obsessive search for a particular comic book.
For a film that’s billed as “a riveting, high-energy mix of Pulp Fiction and Lost Highway” Like a Dirty French Novel is exceedingly slow-paced and flat for most of its short, but still too long, running time. The pandemic has almost no bearing on the film’s plot. It explains why Hue and Crystal are still under the same roof and why Lane is so friendless and that’s it.
Without any real “social disruption” to explain the characters’ actions, Like a Dirty French Novel is basically a collection of stories about a bunch of losers And not particularly interesting ones either. It doesn’t help that several members of the cast don’t even seem to be acting, they’re just repeating lines they memorized like students reading back their homework. That will drain the life out of even the best-written characters.
As if that isn’t enough, Cuenca makes some odd choices when it comes to how he filmed some of Like a Dirty French Novel’s scenes. More than once, quicksand plays a role in the film . But having characters stand on obviously solid ground shrieking “It’s QUICKSAND!” is not convincing. It’s more like a subpar Monty Python sketch.
Framing shots of The Caller so all you see are her lips and ever-present cigarette is equally annoying. I’m sure it was meant as a throwback to the DJ in The Warriors, but that was one of the few things in that film that didn’t work. And even if it had worked then, Cuenca isn’t another Walter Hill. He’s more like Quentin Tarantino scavenging the works of much better filmmakers.
Like a Dirty French Novel made its world premiere at this year’s Dances With Films. You can check for future festival showings and distribution plans on the director’s Tumblr. Yes, somebody still uses Tumblr, that was the biggest surprise Like a Dirty French Novel gave me.