"You can't go home again" could likely be the motto of many of the classic noir thrillers - and of their French counterparts, the stoic, laconic polars that Jean-Pierre Melville raised to an iconic art form and, today, survive merely as a distant memory. Cop turned filmmaker Olivier Marchal, though, seems haunted by that heritage, and in Les Lyonnais he delves back into it through an adaptation of the memoirs of Edmond Vital, the gypsy boss of the redoubtable Lyons gang that made French headlines in the early 1970s. It's that impossible nostalgia for a heroic era of honour among thieves, coloured by far too many quotes of The Godfather, that suffuses the entire worldview of Les Lyonnais, along with the dramatic realisation that that world is never, ever, going to return.

     Set in modern times, the film exploits precisely the chasm between past and present as a retired Vidal (Gérard Lanvin) is pulled back in when his former right-hand man (Tchéky Karyo) reappears and brings the "old days" back, justifying the constant back-and-forth between the 1970s (with Dimitri Storoge and Olivier Chantreau taking over the roles) and the modern-day setting. The "holy virile friendship" at the heart of the story seems more and more a relic of the past, maybe even a fiction, an illusion that never was except in Vidal's mind - too many films and novels, too many idealisms set against a dodgy, crummy reality. In that sense, Les Lyonnais, with its schematic plot points, stolid belief in gang brotherhood and signposted climaxes, conforms to what is expected of a modern gangland thriller while, at the same time, critiquing it as impossible. Nothing in real life is ever that simple, things are always messier and clumsier than they seem.

     Clumsy indeed: Les Lyonnais is reasonably non-descript, with a dash of TV crime series thrown in (look at the perfectly inadequate credit sequence, the way the flashbacks and flashforwards are constantly intercut) - but then Mr. Marchal is also behind current French TV hit series Braquo. Nevertheless, even though the film falls clearly short of its own ambitions, it's an amiable, sincere enterprise carried by Mr. Lanvin's effortless, dignified presence.

Gérard Lanvin, Tchéky Karyo, Daniel Duval, Lionnel Astier; Dimitri Storoge, Patrick Catalifo, François Levantal, Francis Renaud, Valeria Cavalli, Estelle Skornik, Olivier Chantreau, Stéphane Caillard, Florent Bigot de Nesles, Nicolas Gerout, Olivier Rabourdin; Étienne Chicot.

     Director, Olivier Marchal; screenplay, Mr. Marchal, Edgar Marie, from the memoir by Edmond Vidal with Mr. Marie, Pour une poignée de cerises; cinematography, Denis Rouden (colour, processing by Éclair, widescreen); music, Erwann Kermorvant; designer, Ambre Sansonetti; costumes, Agnès Falque; editors, Raphaëlle Urtin, Élodie Codaccioni; producers, Cyril Colbeau-Justin, Jean-Baptiste Dupont, Sylvain Goldberg, Serge de Poucques (LGM Films, Gaumont, France 2 Cinéma, Hatalom and Rhône-Alpes Cinéma in co-production with Nexus Factory and Ufilm, in association with Ufund), France/Belgium, 2010, 102 minutes.
     Screened: DVD, Lisbon, June 6th 2012. 


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