A case study in the importance of knowing as little about a movie’s plot in advance as possible, “Bloody Oranges” ends somewhere completely different from where it began with only minor stumbles along the way. This acerbic look at the France of today isn’t as ha-ha funny as director Jean-Christophe Meurisse probably intended, but its darker shades reveal an underbelly that’s hard to turn away from — even if a few graphic scenes will make you want to.
Our deceptively low-stakes entrée into this world is a lengthy scene in which the judges of a local dance competition argue among themselves over the contestants’ respective skills and get sidetracked by tangential digressions (“like the Paralympics, there should be para-rock concerts”) and increasingly heated debates; one of them even breaks down in tears. The contest itself is a no-frills affair taking place in a gymnasium with no real audience beyond the aspiring dancers themselves, including an older couple (Lorella Cravotta and Olivier Saladin) who are depending on the winnings to solve their financial woes. That’s to the chagrin of their adult son (Alexandre Steiger), a lawyer who has a post-coital conversation with his lover about the failings of his parents’ generation and, having no idea of the debt they’re in, seems to find the very idea of their participating in the competition silly.
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That’s the setup, but it’s not really what the film is about. Meurisse’s script, co-written with Amélie Philippe and Yohann Gloaguen, is much more coy about that, allowing a false sense of security to set in before revealing their hand. There are other vignette-like narrative threads — a teenager (Lilith Grasmug) visits her OB-GYN (Blanche Gardin) to ask questions about having sex for the first time, a government official (Christophe Paou) tries to get ahead of a looming financial scandal — and if you can’t tell what they have to do with one another, that’s intentional. It turns out to be a fairly elegant design at that, as they tie together more seamlessly than at first seems likely. Meurisse is invested in, and successful at, keeping viewers ever so slightly off balance, even uncomfortable, as we wait for the other shoe to drop.
And drop it does. Midway through, the screen goes dark for the briefest of moments and the following text appears: “The old world is dying, the new world struggles to be born. Now is the time of monsters.” Without giving too much away, know that the subtle tension hinted at in the film’s first half is more than fulfilled in the second. No longer a satirical comedy, “Bloody Oranges” reveals a second side of itself that recasts everything that came before in a darker, more compelling light. Few movies swap genres halfway through, and even fewer do so successfully. “Bloody Oranges” does both.
For all that, the film doesn’t fundamentally alter its approach to examining the mood in France today. The kind of back-and-forth, tangential chatter introduced in the first scene serves as a blueprint for how Meurisse’s characters speak to and understand one another, alternately using each other as sounding boards and punching bags. Dinner conversations will touch on everything from feminism to personal grievances, always threatening to go beyond verbal sparring into something more sinister.
The fifth go-nowhere discussion might feel less clever than the first few, and much of the intended humor isn’t as funny as it’s meant to be, but there’s a weight behind these later scenes that wasn’t present in the earlier ones — we’ve now seen what was only hinted at before and know how quickly conversations can go south.
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