Judge William Lee thinks the sweetest meat comes from the most dangerous game, but he needs to know it's not all black and white.
"Whatever happens to animals will soon happen to man."
The writing-directing team of Benoît Delépine and Gustave Kervern (Aaltra) return with another black and white comedy of surreal proportions. Co-produced by Mathieu Kassovitz (La Haine), Avida is the kind of film David Lynch could have made early in his career if he was French and had a sense for comedy.
Facts of the Case
Co-director Gustave Kervern plays a good-natured, deaf mute animal handler. When his wealthy employer dies, the brawny but simple fellow gets mixed up with a pair of zookeepers (Eric Martin and co-director Benoît Delépine) and their kidnapping plot. The plan is to collect a ransom for the pet dog of a rich (and extremely large) woman named Avida (Velvet D'Amour). But when the plan goes wrong, the trio's only hope of getting their hands on the money is to help Avida commit suicide.
There are moments in Avida that remind me of the long take, tableau staging used by Jacques Tati (Playtime), but where he staged seemingly routine everyday moments for light comic effect, Kervern and Delépine stage the absurd and grotesque for decidedly darker laughs. Early in the movie, there is a sequence where the mute's employer returns home and is enjoying some music before his house burns down. The cinematography and sound design work together wonderfully to set up the scene: access to the house is securely controlled by remote, the house is soundproof, and the animal keeper is playing with the guard dogs outside in the yard. As the room fills with smoke, the music playing inside the room intensifies and all the while just beyond the glass door is the deaf mute animal keeper completely oblivious to his boss's unfortunate plight. As death scenes go, this one is hilariously ironic.
The movie's look is influenced by the works of Salvador Dali whose nickname ("Avida Dollars" is an anagram of the painter's name) is borrowed for the movie's title. Landscapes with arrangements of animals and humans against man-made objects make reference to the Surrealist's paintings. Death is a prominent image throughout the movie. Between the suicide that opens the film and the conclusion of Avida's death wish we also see: a zoo where visitors can eat the animals they have just seen, the food stores of the zoo with boxes of dead bite-size critters and a deranged taxidermist who makes up for his lack of skill with artistic flair.
The black and white look is the appropriate choice for this dark comedy. The grainy, high contrast picture lends a dreamlike feeling to the environments. The monochrome visuals also give the close-ups of human flesh an artistic bias and make the detailed shots of animal butchery considerably less gruesome. The DVD packaging states that the video is "16x9 Enhanced" but it appeared convincingly 1.33:1 full frame to me. The cinematography makes consistently good use of the square frame in its compositions. The audio on this DVD is passable. The mono soundtrack delivers the few lines of dialogue clearly and the rest of the time the environmental sound effects and incidental music have a strong presence.
Aside from the theatrical trailer, the other supplements of note are two short music and dance videos featuring Velvet D'Amour. In "Game of Life," we see plus-sized model in a routine with two male dancers. In "Welcome to My Dream," she supplies the lyrics on the soundtrack while shaking everything that can be shaken in front of the camera. Personal tastes will determine how much of Ms. D'Amour you wish to see. I prefer her in the black and white images of the main feature where she looks like a stray cast member from a Fellini movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This pair of filmmakers knows how to construct individual, absurd comic moments that push the boundaries of comfortable viewing. However, their manner of linking all those moments into a coherent story needs work. For example, the kidnapping storyline is communicated so vaguely that it wasn't until the caper went wrong that I really knew it was even happening. There are also some interesting characters that pop in for scenes without really influencing the plot. One very funny moment involved an inept bodyguard who just can't seem to get comfortable firing his gun so he continues shooting well past the point of it doing any good. That's not the only character that left me hoping to see them in another scene. I am willing to accept that in this surreal universe there are things that will be left unexplained—like the siren that prompts every person in town to play dead—but with such a richness of imaginative weirdness on display, the last act of the story shouldn't need to drag the way it does. That wild energy exhibited in the first half of the movie should have been more evenly spread about.
Avida is weirdly fun entertainment full of dark humor and atmospheric visuals that are, at times, a bit unnerving and grotesque but not gross.
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