“Our Heroes Died Tonight” (“Nos héros sont morts ce soir”). 2013, France. Directed and written by David Perreult. Starring Denis Ménochet, Jean-Pierre Martins, Constance Dollé, Pascal Demolon. 97 min.
In a bizarre union of black & white nouvelle vague style, Béla Tarr-esque dark irony and Lucha Libre style wrestling, David Perrault’s “Our Heroes Died Tonight” is a sublime, yet puzzling achievement that probably shouldn’t have worked. Despite being a filmic melting pot of references and ideas, it is an ambiguous but mesmerizing film that eventually defies comparison.
Set in France in the early 1960’s, “Our Heroes Died Tonight” revolves around a wrestler called Simon. In the ring Simon wears a white mask and is known ominously as ‘The Spectre.’ When his friend Victor returns from the Algerian war, Simon gets him a job wrestling as his villainous opponent, a black-masked brute named the ‘Butcher of Belleville.’ Actors Jean-Pierre Martins and Denis Ménochet bring muscular physicality to their roles, yet there is an emotional undercurrent that contradicts their appearance; the frustrations and insecurities of both men are on show.
The excellent supporting cast make up a tapestry of intriguing personas, from Simon’s Serge Gainsbourg loving girlfriend Anna to the otherworldly gang boss Tom.
The film’s stark black and white photography (by cinematographer Christophe Duchange) perfectly underscores the elemental conflict between the wrestlers, but the film delves beyond style to look at the psychological effects of the Algerian war. As Victor’s post-traumatic stress forces him to see his villainous wrestling role negatively, Simon offers to trade masks making Victor the hero. Gradually Victor overcomes his negative self-image, giving way to ungrateful arrogance. The film’s score waltzes throughout the narrative in a hypnotic manner that at times means the film’s style smothers the impetus for plot. The film also utilizes visual motifs, such as a dream sequence featuring the black mask to lay Victor’s fears on heavily. However, there is something so enthralling in each of the film’s period framing of wrestling, the Algerian war and French cinema that it manages to transcend its faults.
As the film builds towards its climax, Perrault throws in an utterly bizarre character called the Finn, played by Pascal Demolon. His performance is delivered with such comic energy that he risks stealing the show, but the film’s dark moral ambiguity keeps us in a state of strange contemplation. Ultimately “Our Heroes Died Tonight” is an art film of the most absurd and entertaining kind.