In trying to be everything to everyone, the emasculated thriller Bastille Day typifies the fearful filmmaking of our time. By Christos Tsiolkas.

Fear and compromise in ‘Bastille Day’

Idris Elba and Richard Madden fail to fire in Bastille Day.
Idris Elba and Richard Madden fail to fire in Bastille Day.

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An argument can be mounted that Bastille Day, a transnational action thriller about a terrorist conspiracy to bring Paris to a standstill on the French national holiday, is a film that brazenly reveals the contradictions and conundrums of contemporary Western liberalism. In a world where progressives favour the neo-Thatcherite Angela Merkel and where anti-PC libertarians lionise the macho bravado of Donald Trump, the ideological shapeshifting of the film might just capture the uselessness of trying to understand current politics through a traditional left–right prism. But I fear such an argument is being too generous to the filmmakers.

Bastille Day is a woefully plodding film, and director James Watkins and his co-writer Andrew Baldwin show no evidence of recognising how stale their narrative machinations are, nor how compromised are both their aesthetic and ethical choices. Lacking the propulsive dynamism of the Bourne or Die Hard films, and not being able to afford the extravagance and technical wizardry of the Bond franchise, the best thing one can say about the film is that it is blessedly short. Which raises the question: why review it?

My answer is in part that it is sometimes the B-grade film that most explicitly reveals the realities of commercial filmmaking. Just as mainstream political parties now seem fearful of their voters, Bastille Day displays a loss of nerve when it comes to its audience, wanting to be everything to everyone. Our hero is a CIA operative, Sean Briar, played by Idris Elba, whose stints in the Middle East have left him cynical and disillusioned. The film lampoons the suited white males of the CIA but the heroism of the female operatives and those of the cadres of colour are never in doubt. The plot is kickstarted when an American pickpocket in Paris, Michael, played by Richard Madden, accidentally steals a bag that conceals a bomb. The bag belongs to Zoe, played by Charlotte Le Bon, who is a dithering fool for the first half of the film, just so we can understand that she lacks the ruthlessness of the “real” terrorists. But she miraculously musters a spirited bravery late in the film when the bad guys are revealed to be members of the French secret service. Michael, too, might be a thief preying on tourists, but we are given to understand he is a decent guy by his giving money to the homeless. I wish I was making this stuff up, but this is the kind of film it is. The refugee characters are childlike and innocent, and even the terrorists are given a get-out-of-jail-free card: it is suggested that their fury arises from their being treated ill by their employer, the French government.

Of course, given the atrocities visited on the city of Paris during the past two years, all this convoluted idiocy can’t help but leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. Bastille Day had the misfortune of having its shoot completed just before the Charlie Hebdo killings and I assume some of the narrative incomprehension arises from desperation in the editing. It’s unfortunate for the filmmakers that history has now made the film seem ludicrous, but in a sense that makes the bad faith of their original intentions even more distasteful. Terrorism, the refugee crisis, the overreach of the surveillance state: all are reduced to sterile and banal plot points.

Twenty minutes in, I found my mind wandering to the 2010 three-part French television series, Carlos, directed by Olivier Assayas. In his films and in his writings on cinema, Assayas has proved one of the most intellectually rigorous of directors when it comes to making sense of how the radical cinema of the 1960s and 1970s still impacts on the work of his contemporaries. Carlos is available in a truncated cinematic version but, if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to seek the long-form television series. Ostensibly a biography of the Marxist terrorist, Carlos the Jackal, it investigates the Soviet legacy of the Cold War, and how the USSR’s meddling and interventions in Africa and the Middle East also played a part in creating the “blowback” that gave rise to Islamic fundamentalism and international terror. It is an exciting and powerful work, and deeply unsettling, indicting both imperialism but also the nihilism and anti-Semitism of segments of the European left. It is proof of what is possible when the subject of terrorism is treated seriously and thoughtfully by filmmakers. After each episode of Carlos, you wanted to continue discussing it into the night, to argue with its radical provocation of accepted thought. It felt alive and it felt relevant.

The easy conclusion to draw is that this is simply more evidence that television is surpassing cinema when it comes to engaging with an adult audience. Film continues to be a medium that inspires me; but it is no accident that, for example, the two finest feature films I saw over the past year, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour and Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe, were confined to screenings at film festivals or short seasons at cinemas such as Melbourne’s ACMI. Formally thrilling, they are films that are best appreciated when viewed on the large screen. Great works are still being made as cinema, but what is changing, apart from the viewing platforms on which we see film, is the loss of the democratic urgency of cinema. In the 20th century, cinema spurred artists, philosophers and intellectuals to criticise and destabilise a hierarchy of high and low art, to celebrate and be inspired by works of popular imagination. In the radical splintering of audiences that characterises the digital 21st century, cinema as cinema is becoming increasingly elite, confined to the festivals and to the gentrified city.

There is something dirty in the cloying and desperate way Bastille Day tries to be inoffensive. There’s something for the action fan, for the feminist, for the social justice warrior, for the conspiracy theorist and for the gamer. The effect of such compromise, as with politics hostage to the polls, is to simultaneously bore and enrage an audience. Our intelligence is being insulted. The filmmakers must be aware of how wretched a way this is to make films. It certainly seems to have affected the cast. They are listless, unable to muster any passion or care for the work they are doing.

The worst casualty is Elba. I remember having an anxious thought when I first heard he was going to play the lead in 2013’s Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Playing virtuous can sometimes be the kiss of death for a male actor, as if embodying nobility makes them distrust the potency and danger, or the insouciance and frivolity, that made them initially appealing. Gregory Peck was never sexy again after Atticus Finch; Tom Hanks’ nerdy charm vanished after Forrest Gump. More recently, Russell Crowe seems depleted in the righteous roles he has been choosing. Virtue might be even more dangerous for a black actor, the still racially fraught economics of movie-making limiting the female actors they can play against. It took years for Denzel Washington to shake off Malcolm X, only regaining the riveting charisma he had as a younger actor in recent films such as American Gangster and Flight.

Elba was electrifying as “Stringer” Bell in the television series The Wire: dangerous, seductive and compelling. I couldn’t wait to see him playing against an actor equal to his talent, and it was exciting just thinking of him playing a romantic lead. But in Bastille Day he is made almost deliberately celibate, a Dirty Harry wedded to his gun. The closest there is to a love interest is with the nauseatingly juvenile Madden, a lopsided bromance that can’t possibly satisfy anybody.

I might have been too generous in referring to the film as B-grade. Sometimes innovation and daring is to be found in the outliers of genre film, and sometimes all you want from a film is a performance that you can’t shake or the experience of seeing a comedian you love take command of the screen. I still haven’t found a pleasure that compares with laughing out loud in a cinema filled with strangers, or knowing that my heart is beating madly with fear, along with everyone else’s seated around me. But Bastille Day is devoid of any such pleasures. I wish I could believe that the filmmakers and actors were just cynical: that they were already thinking of their next project and their next pay cheque as they were filming it. But what concerns me is that this is all a result of not trusting the audience, of fearing us. In this sense, and only in this sense, it feels exemplary of our times.


1 . Arts Diary

LITERATURE Sydney Writers Festival

Various venues, Sydney, May 16-22

THEATRE The Events

Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until June 12

SCULPTURE Subodh Gupta: Everyday Divine

NGV International, Melbourne, until October 16

MULTIMEDIA Cameron Robbins: Field Lines

MONA, Hobart, May 18-August 29

FASHION Fashion Week Australia

Various venues, Sydney, May 15-20

FESTIVAL Pyrmont Festival

Various venues, Sydney, until May 22

Last chance

VISUAL ART Good People

Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, until May 21

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2016 as "Terror incognito".

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Christos Tsiolkas is the author of The Slap, Barracuda and Damascus. He is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.

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