A French Take on John Wayne

When a French family tries to hold on to the past, it doesn’t end well.

Michael AtkinsonJune 23, 2016

François Damiens as Alain in Les Cowboys. (Courtesy of Cohen Media Group)

The ter­rain tra­versed by Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cow­boys—the asym­met­ri­cal bat­tles between West­ern cul­ture and the post-colo­nial world, as they play out for ordi­nary peo­ple — is so famil­iar in Euro­pean movies it could be cliché by now. That is, if it weren’t also the unde­ni­able, post­mod­ern State of Things, the new glob­al normal.

Bidegain’s movie turns aimless and ruminative as these Frenchmen face the world outside of their borrowed-nostalgia homestead.

The film treads upon some heav­i­ly loaded turf. It tells the tale of a patri­arch try­ing to find his kid­napped” teenage daugh­ter, which, along with the potent title, imme­di­ate­ly sug­gests John Ford’s clas­sic west­ern The Searchers (1956). Ford’s film famous­ly had a griz­zled John Wayne spend years obses­sive­ly search­ing for a niece who had been abduct­ed by the Comanche.

In this mod­ern-day retelling, a burly dad named Alain (François Damiens) los­es his 16-year-old daugh­ter Kel­ly (Iliana Zabeth) at a pseu­do-Amer­i­can rodeo in semi-rur­al France. As days pass, he dis­cov­ers that she has an Arab boyfriend and does not intend to be found.

Like Ford’s mys­te­ri­ous saga, the sto­ry rolls out across years and con­ti­nents, rop­ing in and glanc­ing off oth­er sto­ries. But all of the ingre­di­ents dove­tail into a mas­ter­ful­ly con­ceived whole, begin­ning with Damiens’ Stet­son-wear­ing dad, a tight­ly coiled study in West­ern priv­i­lege and con­trol under siege. He’s in a hor­ror film, while every­one he con­fronts acts as if noth­ing ter­ri­ble or unusu­al has hap­pened: Teens run away and get mar­ried some­times, even to Arabs, right?

Mean­while, the Mus­lim neigh­bor­hoods he bar­rels into repel him as an inter­lop­er, and the cops shrug. The only per­son who reflects his agi­ta­tion is a Min­istry of the Inte­ri­or offi­cial who turns the father’s con­cerns around and asks about the miss­ing girl’s sci­ence grades, clear­ly sus­pi­cious of her via­bil­i­ty as a tool for bomb-mak­ing terrorists.

And this is well before 911, as we dis­cov­er only when the burn­ing tow­ers are glimpsed on a TV mid­way through the film, an unspec­i­fied num­ber of years into the hunt. We should’ve seen the signs, the film implies; Amer­i­can pro­to-colo­nial­ism is every­where. Even in south­east­ern France, a fair’s all-white crowds sing Ten­nessee Waltz” and line dance in cow­boy boots, strange­ly aping a flag-draped Amer­i­can cul­ture they have no con­nec­tion to. The family’s home is done in late fake-Alamo; there’s even a fam­i­ly friend in a pon­cho nick­named the Indian.”

This impe­ri­al­ist iconog­ra­phy, bor­rowed from one cul­ture by anoth­er, links Alain’s world to the fate of the Native Amer­i­cans. A cow­boy hat in this con­text bursts with creepy mean­ing: Cow­boy-ism is on the rise, one colo­nial­ism is much like any oth­er, and all are sub­ject to even­tu­al blowback.

In the John Wayne film, the forces in con­flict are love ver­sus xeno­pho­bia. Will Wayne’s rag­ing big­ot save his niece when he finds her, or snuff her out because she’s been defiled as an Indian’s wife? All by itself, that sin­gle furi­ous ques­tion has made The Searchers one of Amer­i­can movies’ most res­o­nant achieve­ments. For Bide­gain, the ques­tion has grown more com­plex — the mod­ern white man is even more help­less in his des­per­a­tion, unable to rely on prairie jus­tice to main­tain his ten­u­ous con­trol over his world.

As the film loosens its focus with time, the family’s young son matures into a wily teenag­er (Finnegan Old­field) who con­tin­ues his father’s search for Kel­ly out of guilt and oblig­a­tion. He ends up on the Afghan bor­der, where the sto­ry begins to morph and mutate, encap­su­lat­ing a not-entire­ly trust­wor­thy Amer­i­can smug­gler (John C. Reil­ly), the pol­i­tics of NGOs in a war zone and a strand­ed Pak­istani wid­ow (Ello­ra Torchia). The bomb­ings in Madrid and Lon­don also show up on TV. Like the search itself, Bidegain’s movie turns aim­less and rumi­na­tive as these French­men face the world out­side of their bor­rowed-nos­tal­gia homestead.

The film’s end­ing diverges rad­i­cal­ly from the famous cli­max of Ford’s movie, as it should in the day and age of non­stop change and for­ev­er war. Set in the wilds of a young coun­try that served as its own fron­tier, the old­er film’s hope­ful res­o­lu­tion was just that — if not strict­ly con­ser­v­a­tive in its impli­ca­tions, then at least affir­ma­tive of Hol­ly­wood fam­i­ly val­ues. Les Cow­boys’ final act can be read as mere­ly a pro­gres­sive hap­py end­ing, but it also deliv­ers a nec­es­sary reminder — that hold­ing onto the past, who­ev­er you are, is a recipe for disaster

Michael Atkin­son is a film review­er for In These Times. He has writ­ten or edit­ed many books, includ­ing Exile Cin­e­ma: Film­mak­ers at Work Beyond Hol­ly­wood (2008) and the mys­tery nov­els Hem­ing­way Dead­lights (2009) and Hem­ing­way Cut­throat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Con­duct.
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