4 Days in France is a sprawling, uneven, Janus-faced film.
4 Days in France is a sprawling, uneven, Janus-faced film. At its best, it is a worthy addition to the long tradition of absurdist French road movies. But writer-director Jérôme Reybaud has too little fidelity to that subgenre and far too much plot to get through. At its worst, the film is a bogged-down story of self-reinvention and romantic relationships, telling—not showing—a story.
The film depicts Pierre Thomas (Pascal Cervo) and his attempt to run away from his boyfriend Paul (Arthur Igual) and his established life as a professor at the Sorbonne. To open the film, Pierre drives southeast away from Paris into the French countryside. The plot involves Pierre having several random encounters on his adventure as well as Paul’s desperate chase after him. Neither man says very much during the film, but Pierre says enough to demonstrate to the audience that his meanderings across France are aimless and prone to sudden change, dictated by Grindr more than anything else.
In its early stages of the film, the film announces clearly its intentions to pay homage to Jean-Luc Godard, particularly his 1967 triumph Weekend. This is Reybaud’s debut feature-length fiction film, and he utilizes it to showcase some prodigious skill. There are several breathtaking tracking shots, for instance, as well as brief forays into various aspects of French intellectual life. Like Godard, Reybaud has crafted a film that could have a works cited page attached to it. Here, in its first stages, 4 Days in France is a road movie, but of a particular sort: Pierre has run-ins with an odd assortment of characters that are too strange to be plausible. The most surreal of these is with a woman who absconded with a bag of random personal items from his car. Pierre runs her down, takes back his things and then inexplicably returns them to the thief. They sit together and the thief rummages through the bag and only keeps for herself those items which would allow Pierre to easily return to his previous life.
But Reybaud often deviates from this absurdist road movie trope before finally abandoning it. Halfway through, the film decides to become something in the lines of a realist relationship drama. Weird encounters continue, but the anarchic joy of the first act is gone. Reybaud leaves Godard behind, to the film’s detriment. After this unwelcome tonal shift, it becomes an overlong and boring march to the inevitable ending that any experienced viewer knows is coming.
This unfortunate change of narrative direction highlights another of the film’s overcooked elements. Namely, it posits too many theses. The plot is about relationships, the motifs are both film-historical and intellectual and the most obvious social issue addressed here is the place of homosexuality in French culture. There are several other important arguments made here, however, including many funny lines about cultural globalization, a scathing indictment of modern humans’ attachment to our phones and an old-fashioned Godardian critique of materialist capitalism. The film both defends and attacks traditional French identity. Taken individually, any of these themes and arguments would be worthwhile; when smashed together in a single film, they reek of lack of focus and filmmaking inexperience. Reybaud has not developed the patience to hone his message yet.
4 Days in France is ultimately disappointing, but only because its opening hour is so perfectly constructed, unpredictable and steeped in the history of rollicking, middle-finger-to-the-establishment ‘60s French cinema that it raises audience expectations. Even though it devolves into a snoozefest, this is a film which, at times, does sizzle with real craft and energy.