Friday evening I went to see Olivier Marchal’s Les Lyonnais at the movies. The film tells the story of Edmond Vidal, leader of the gang responsible for some of the most spectacular bank robberies in France in the 70’s.
Vidal was born into a family of gypsies. His life took a definitive turn when, at the age of 17, he and his friend Serge Suttel were arrested for stealing a crate of cherries. The judge wasn’t sympathetic to gypsies, and they were sentenced to 2 months in prison. While incarcerated, Edmond, known as “Momon,” and Serge were drawn into the world of crime and when they were released, they joined a gang of criminals, and eventually started their own gang, which became known as the Gang of the Lyonnais.
Olivier Marchal, actor, director and screenwriter for film and TV, is a former officer in the French Judiciary Police. His films are known for their authenticity and explore the sometimes blurry lines between crime and justice, between right and wrong, between good and bad, portraying criminals and law enforcement officers in a way that emphasizes how little separates them and how easily our judgements can be swayed.
Les Lyonnais exposes the dark side of the life of a gangster. The atmosphere is heavy, and the film stops just shy of moralizing, as scene after scene depicts the terrible consequences that the characters themselves seem powerless to stop once the chain of events has been put into march. At times the film seemed to glorify the members of the gang and their “ethic,” almost falling into cliché as Momon, like Don Coreleon, carries out daring criminal operations and ruthless attacks on his enemies, while trying to avoid innocent bloodshed and refusing to become involved in the ignoble drug traffic, all while being a devoted family man, valuing above all loyalty and the promise of his word.
It’s not surprising the film is sympathetic to Vidal since it’s based on his biography, Pour une Poignée de Cerises (For a Handful of Cherries), co-written by Edgar Marie, who also co-wrote the scenario. Edmond Vidal says he’s seen it three times (link in French).
Marchal masterfully tells the story through short frequent flashbacks. Full of imagery, these sometimes repetitive sequences provide an excellent way to convey the essence of Vidal’s life, which would have been too long to tell completely in a two-hour film. The story of “Public Enemy #1,” Jacques Mesrine, was told in two full-length feature films, while the The Godfather, evoked by Les Lyonnais in several places, was a trilogy.
The film stars two of my favorite actors, Gérard Lanvin as Momon and Tchéky Karyo in the role of Serge. It’s always a pleasure to watch them, and they turned in fine performances. I confess that I was somewhat disappointed in the casting of their younger counterparts, not because they lacked talent, but because, knowing well what Lanvin and Karyo looked like in their younger days, I was distracted by the discrepancy in their appearances. This discrepancy called more attention to the back and forth of the flashbacks, and I found it required some attention to keep track of all the players in the story. For those who haven’t seen any of their older films, this might be less of a problem.
The heavy reliance on flashbacks would not have worked had Marchal not had the good sense to use them to convey details sparingly. Without going overboard into artifice or formula, the audience is treated to visual and auditive sequences that capture the essence and emotions of the story as well as the ambiance of the epoch. They’re also a nice treat for fans of some of the vintage French cars of the epoch, such as the Citroën DS.
The scenario is good, well-paced and keeps the audience guessing until the end. For those looking for a modern, original treatment of the genre that doesn’t fall back on onto stereotypes of French cinema, this film should be a nice surprise. For English-speaking readers, I’m not sure if it will have a wide enough appeal to be translated into English and distributed in the US, but if you do have a chance to see it, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.