Greetings from The Underground!
An estranged couple forced to live under the same roof during a pandemic. A fatal case of mistaken identity. A cosplaying femme fatale who is always looking for something better gets in over her head, and a robbery gone wrong. All of these stories are set against the backdrop of a global pandemic in the new campy neo-noir anthology film “Like A Dirty French Novel” which premiered at the 2021 Dances with Films film festival.
“Like A Dirty French Novel” is a cinematic page turner. From start to finish I was engrossed in the characters and their stories. The film is broken up into chapters which at first seem to be stand alone stories set within the same world. Director Micke Cuenca, along with writers Ashlee Elman and Dan Rojay, manage to methodically intertwine these plots with each new chapter. Keeping the audience guessing on how the characters tie together while also providing a very satisfying “ah ha!” moment. Cuenca’s direction has the spirit of Tarantino while maintaining his own signature. The opening title sequence had a flavor of Hitchcock to them while the characters are ripped right from the pulp novels of old. There is just enough use of the “grindhouse” aesthetic to give it that grimy feel that is fitting for the events that play out on screen but not enough to where it is distracting. Production value overall for the film is high, you could hardly guess they shot the film in six days during a pandemic.
What helped sell the stories was the cast. While I enjoyed the performance of everyone involved, there were a few who really stood out to me. Jennifer Daley plays “Crystal” with the depth you want from a character like this. There are many layers to her that she manages to not reveal right away. Thanks to her expressions, you could almost hear what her character was thinking before she did something, good or bad. I also thoroughly enjoyed Lane, played by Amanda Viola. She appears in Chapter 3 “The Bicyclist” and was a very intriguing person. I loved the dialog exchange she had not only with herself but with Aaron Bustos, Jake. These two were wonderful together, executing unique discussions with dialog that had underlying meaning. Then there is Laura Urgelles as “The Caller”. She is a common element across the chapters and her voice acting was hair-raisingly good. Urgelles has a seductive and sinister quality to it that is perfect for this role.
The cinematography helps keep things visually interesting. There were certain chapters where they played with the focus and others where hard shadows were used, similar to 50s noir films. The segment “Interlude 2” had an almost David Lynchian style to it. The use of nudity and violence is used just enough to give it the grimy pulp feel without overdoing it. There is just the right balance of humor worked into the framework as well, so the viewer is not weighed down too much with the dark themes. The soundtrack helped complete the pulpy grindhouse effect they were going for. Unlike some indie films that attempt this type of interweaving narratives, “Like A Dirty French Novel” does not leave the audience hanging with a lot of unanswered questions. They tidy the multiple stories up quite nicely, with just a little bit of freedom for your imagination to fill in the blanks.
“Like A Dirty French Novel” is a tightly directed, well crafted film that easily handles multiple stories that will keep the viewer engaged. I went into the film knowing very little and came out of it impressed. I have no doubt this film will get the wide distribution which it deserves. I can’t wait to put this one on my shelf.