“Strange things happen,” one character tells another as they hash out the twisty mystery at the heart of Like a Dirty French Novel. It could very well be the tagline for this low-budget pandemic noir, which interweaves the lives of a dozen characters into a mess of quarantine anxieties, romantic desperation and sometimes comical criminal behavior. It’s a sprawling story told from multiple characters’ points of view. The shifts feel disorienting at first, but everything comes together in a coherent fashion.
Hue (Robby Valls) is one of the many leads, but he’s the one whom we follow the most. He’s quarantining at home and finding himself in a rough spot with his girlfriend, Crystal (Jennifer Daley). Crystal may or may not be cheating on him, which is fair. Hue has been calling an erotic phone service from the bathroom late at night to speak to the sultry woman on the other end. The Caller (Laura Urgelles), as she’s known, is also connected to Dooley (Grant Moninger), a man whose quarantine-era marriage is equally fraught. Meanwhile, Lane (Amanda Viola) finds herself in the aftermath of a robbery gone wrong involving Evan (Dan Rojay) and later finds herself in a meet-cute romance with Jake (Aaron Bustos), who disappears after a horrible accident. Jake, in fact, may well be the one with whom Crystal is cheating.
See? Complex. That’s just the surface of where Like a Dirty French Novel takes its story; there’s also a crime boss and a cosplayer for good measure.
The pandemic-era production adequately embraces the absurdity of this era. None of the characters seems to be approaching the world in the same way as they once did, which feels terribly accurate to how 2020 really felt. Hue is nervous about leaving home. Lane still wears a mask. Dooley collects unemployment benefits but ends up involved in things he shouldn’t. The bank robbery is based, in part, on economic frustrations of the working class who have to choose between poverty or being impoverished while working among the sick. It’s all a big mess. Everyone’s a mess.
There are times, particularly at the start of the film, where the lo-fi aesthetics and strangeness made me concerned this was just a bunch of friends goofing around with a camera, making something in the face of 2020’s brutal mental torment. Maybe it’s still that, to some extent, but thankfully director Mike Cuenca, alongside writers Rojay and Ashlee Elfman, create a pretty involving noir picture once the disparate characters start to really connect.
Aesthetically, Cuenca and company try out different visual palettes for different characters. The crime boss is all dark and shadow. An idyllic park is lit naturally. The final confrontation is given a more earthy color balance to invoke older, classic cinematic confrontations. The final epilogue breaks down completely as it reveals some loose ends.
Although it initially frustrates, Like a Dirty French Novel resolves its story and characters in a satisfying-enough fashion to make the disjointed narrative feel worthwhile. It’s experimental in the sense that the creators are using every movie-making trick they have available to them at this level, and because the story lands, the rest feels like a lot of fun. It has a strong absurdist energy to it while also capturing the frustrating nature of life during the 2020 pandemic. Good work.