The narrator at the beginning of Like a Dirty French Novel says that the stories told throughout the film are inspired by the social disorder caused by COVID-19. In that way, Cuenca’s debut is less like a European paperback and more like a funhouse mirror, distorting and exaggerating the emotional rollercoaster that is this pandemic.
Like a Dirty French Novel follows the stories of a depressed competitive puzzler, a sensual phone operator, estranged twin brothers and a cosplayer with a complex as they struggle to form connections and survive in a socially distanced world. You’d likely never find this cast of characters in even the weirdest dive bar, but their unique circumstances somehow tangibly connect them to one another.
Yet these eccentricities are the only defining traits of the film’s hollow characters. In an attempt to create a pandemic Pulp Fiction, the film loses any sense of heart or earnestness that endears audiences to grindhouse noir. There’s not a urge to understand the overarching mystery in Like a French Novel because there’s little effort made to make us care about what happens to these individuals.
There still is something to be taken away from this pandemic piece though. All throughout Like a Dirty French Novel we see individuals pushed into a false sense of reality. A place where the mind is folly and one’s urges are only heightened. It’s a environment where the sweet nothings from nobodies over the phone become our primary means of pleasure. No, this land the film journeys through is not a gateway into The Twilight Zone: It’s the loneliness we all felt during the worst days of the pandemic.
Cuenca understands that if there is anything that connects us all together, it’s that we all cannot stand our own company. When moments of quiet should bring us closer together, Like a Dirty French Novel shows us just how separated and disassociated we have become.
The Silver Lining
The scenes featuring the sultry phone operator are really nicely blocked. DP Jessica Gallant hides the woman’s face from ever being fully seen, instead showing the audience only the movement of her lips or the tingling of her fingers. It gives the character an aire of mystery that is unique to the entire film.
Like a Dirty French Novel had its world premiere at the Dances With Films Film Festival and is coming soon to a screen near you.