Having premiered in Cannes before doing the festival rounds at Fantasia Festival and the BFI London Film Festival, Stéphan Castang's masterful genre mash-up sees a docile everyman faced with the reality that everyone inexplicably wants to kill him.
Think you’ve had a bad day at work?
Vincent will make you think twice.
The titular protagonist of Stéphan Castang’s debut feature film, played by Karim Leklou, seems like a mild-mannered everyman. He works in graphic design, in a bog-standard office in Lyon. He seems to get on with his coworkers. Until an intern’s laptop smacks him square in the face.
No reason why. A case of burnout, it is suggested.
Another unprovoked assault soon follows when he’s repeatedly stabbed in the hand by another colleague, who is taken with the sudden urge to cause him bodily harm.
Rather than receive support from HR, Vincent is left with the rather unsavoury feeling that he’s being blamed, and is told to work from home. That opens a whole new can of violent worms, as others around him also start attacking him.
There’s no rhyme or reason to it. He’s just inexplicably become France’s punching bag.
Understanding that the attacks seem to be triggered by eye contact, he’s nonetheless forced to go on the run, heading to the countryside where he’ll attempt to piece together what is going on and how best to survive a world is isn’t just out to get him. It’s out to kill him.
What he’ll soon discover is that he’s not the only one, and that the question isn’t why people are attacking him – it's how long he’s got left.
This stylish debut by Castang is an absurdist black comedy thriller that sits at the crossroads of several genres - something that’s mirrored in its structure. The film starts out as a darkly humorous mystery, which quickly morphs into a "It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you” thriller. That progresses into slasher territory, then a zombie film, before crescendoing into an apocalyptic survival film / end-of-the-world romance.
It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off, with many tones to harmonize, but Castang does it with aplomb. His carefully crafted genre blend reveals a deep appreciation for the likes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Crazies, In The Mouth of Madness, and ofen recalls It Follows. George A. Romero and John Carpenter are the touchstones which linger the most – especially with the Carpenter-inspired synths in John Kaced’s excellent score, which ups the uneasy feel throughout.
Cineliterate though the film is, these loving nods don’t detract from Vincet Must Die ’s uniqueness. Working from Mathieu Naert’s original screenplay, Castang never gets lost in what could have been a hodgepodge of genre leanings, and injects plenty of deadpan comedy into the mix. Impressively, at no point does he allow the film to get bogged down by unnecessary narrative pandering.
Why are people doing this? Are they possessed? Is it a virus? None of that truly matters, and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t feel compelled to offer an easy explanation.
The audience, like the protagonist, is immersed in the same confusion and dread as Vincent, as our eyes dart about the screen to ascertain where the next incoming threat is coming from, and how Vincent will be scratched, bitten, stabbed, maimed, beaten... You get the picture.
Instead of spoon-feeding any answers, which would deflate the tension and the story as a whole, the film unexpectedly offers up a far more thoughtful (and surprisingly affecting) reflection on the human condition, specifically through the looking leitmotif and the gaze of the Other in the modern world.
As well as being a parable about the collapse of the social contract and a possible allegory for everyday alienation in our modern world, there are also timely resonances to be found in a post-Covid landscape - even if the script was developed prior to the pandemic. Essentially, we witness a world gradually brought to its knees by an phenomenon that triggers some powerful anxieties.
Sound oddly familiar?
The aggressions and microaggressions of daily life are well handled, as is the violence, which never feels overindulgent. Crucially, the realistic depiction of combat allows Vincent Must Die to perfectly address contemporary violence in all its permutations.
Pivotal to this is the performance by Leklou. His perfectly calibrated turn never limits itself to underdog cliché, and deals with a wide range of emotions. His physicality drives home not only the believable impact of societal and physical brutality, but also reveals the film’s beating heart. Indeed, while the first half of Vincent Must Die does shine brightest and is a pacier affair, the second segment needs to sit with you for its effect to work. Much like Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster – with which this film shares certain strands which shall not be spoiled here – an identifiable break in setting also yields wider existential musings. Leklou sells every beat - chiefly, what it takes to be human and how human connection (in this case with the excellent Vimala Pons, who plays Margaux, a waitress who strangely takes her time in attacking Vincent) is fundamental to maintaining one’s sanity.
Vincent Must Die is a very promising debut feature, singling out Castang as a talent to keep a close eye on. It also manages that most impressive of things: keeping you entertained with an absurdist gender-bending tale, while leaving you with plenty to muse on about the realities of human interaction and the modern ills that surround us.
You may even feel yourself getting a wee bit paranoid when walking home from the cinema. And sometimes, that's no bad thing.
Vincent Must Die is out now in European cinemas. Stay tuned to Euronews Culture for our exclusive interview with Stéphan Castang.