An organized crime and deceitful milieu sets the stage for a missing bag of stolen cash, an unscrupulous bunch of characters, and a mysterious omnipresence being persuasive behind the curtain of a rotary phone. When ex-lovers Crystal and Hue are not in heated spats over past infidelities, trapped inside their quaint apartment, Crystal moonlights as an adult cosplaying model secretly having an relationship with a stranger while Hue locks himself away in the bathroom conversing secretively and flirtatiously with an unknown woman he knows nothing about. They become entwined in a heist gone wrong by a group of halfwit robbers that leaves a trail of death, lies, and an evil charting their fates in the shadows.
Desultory pulp basking in noir fiction, “Like A Dirty French Novel” flaunts a chicly awkward and brazenly unmethodical black comedy and crime drama front from Cuban-American writer-director Mike Cuenca. The “By the Wayside” and “I’ll Be Around” auteur stitches together a vivaciously satire and minuscule budgeted drama comedy shot in the zero hours of a time crunching, less than a week, schedule with an editing style, edited by Cuenca himself as one of his many production hats, of five chaptered, non-linear tale of sectionalized cynicism and infringing transgressions. Cuenca co-write the script with Ashlee Elfmann and “I’ll Be Around” co-writer, Dan Rojay, with Cuenca self-producing under the filmmaker’s East Los Angeles-based, DIY encouraging production company, Blvd. Du Cinema Productions.
With an ensemble cast, “Like A Dirty French Novel” spreads out with five chapters, two interludes, and a prologue that begins with three men walking in a desert and approached by a mysterious woman in a chintzy, but intrinsically detailed, Japanese resembling Oni mask. Before we can invest into these bewildering circumstance that leave the three men screaming for their very lives, Cuenca whisks up away right into Chapter One, introducing bickering ex-lovers Crystal (Jennifer Daley, “Blood Born”) and Hue (Rob Vally, of gay themed Steven Vasquez pictures such as “Angels with Tethered Wings” and “Dancing on the Dark Side of the Moon.”) snooping into each other’s hidden extracurricular activities that leave Crystal daydreaming about romance and Hue surrendering to smutty phone talk. Not much is revealed in the first chapter before segueing into the second with Forrester Dooley (Grand Moninger), an unhappily married man who switches places with his twin brother and the recently unincinerated Bugs Dooley (also Moninger), but, as fate would have it, Bugs turns out to be a standup, wonderful guy whereas Forrester need for a break ironically places a bullseye on back and he ends up stranded in the desert with two unsavory fellows, circling back to the film’s vague prologue. The cause for their stranding is because of Lane, a manic drifter delightfully captured by “We Take The Low Road’s” Amanda Viola. Lane is approached by cool cat Jake (Aaron Bustos) and what ensues next is a montage of innocent dalliance before he suddenly vanishes and is seemingly dead to the world. Remaining chapters unravel more about the principle players, spilling their hidden agendas and their scheming roles surrounding a duffle bag of thieved cash pinched from a local ruthless kingpin Filmore Demille, played by Cuenca himself donning yet another hat. The cast rounds out with Dominic Fawcett, Samantha Nelson, Laura Urgelles, Claire Woolner, Dan Rojay, Joey Halter, Miles Dougal, Steven Escot, Arko Miro, and “Murder Manual’s” Brittany Samson as the interlude’s stammering and obsessed fanatic of the masked and sexy graphic novel cosplay model.
“Like A Dirty French Novel” pulsates with pulpy fiction with hints of Lynchian notes through Cuenca’s back and forth pacing of connecting the dots to his equivocal crime thriller. Cuenca’s gray area, faltering more than any other, lies in making that relating and understandable so important connection of reverting scenes back to earlier ones in order to have actions make sense. A once over is not enough to fully grasp “Like A Dirty French Novel’s” abstract features and to be recursive would not be a sign of weakness or simplemindedness on our part. Still, smoothing out the rough patches like with the peculiar finale, which I’m speculating to be the grounds of Hell, would have made “Like A Dirty French Novel” more of an easy read than a confusing one as well as completing most characters arcs with a satisfying tell all fate. Cuenca’s filmic message of what comes around, goes around comes across more clearly with those who reap what they sow. A faux book entitled Porter du Fruit or Bear Fruit yields to positive results and, in which this case, none of those characters who go to the grounds of Hell are saints by any means. Constrained by a shallow pocket budget, settings are simple outdoor public areas, small apartments utilized with polygonal angles, and, if you’re working in L.A. much like this shoot, then more than likely a scene or two, at the very least, is filmed in the desert, but seasoned cinematographer, Jessica Gallant (“The Control Group,” “Shevenge”) spruces up scenes with neon red lighting, dabbing in black and white, and centralizing characters with focal spotlight, adding little classic techniques that still pop in the camera’s eye. Gallant’s wide berth of techniques, from hot pink tints to emulating grindhouse celluloid grain and scratches, keeps a stylized profile wanting to be watched. However, most cast performances are not so debonair as they come across a bit prosy, staged, and without too much magnetism that usually trends with pulp-noir trademarks and, of course, trashy novels érotiques bon marché. With the exception of the underused Amanda Viola and Cuenca’s solo-scene monologue, sleeping at the wheel performances drives no other standouts in this cast.
“Like A Dirty French Novel” premiered this past August at the independent showcase, Dances With Films film festival, held in Los Angeles at The Chinese Theaters as part of their Midnight lineup; however, no current confirmations on when the first home release – whether physical release or digital releases – will be available yet. Briskly paced at 78 minutes, Cuenca squeezes into one more hat among his list of production duties as author of the eclectic sometime brooding and sometime high energy score along with Carlos Colon composing the pieces that could resemble the minor league notes of Michel Legrand. Alas, Michael Cuenca’s “Like A Dirty French Novel” aims to be more bourgeoisie than an obvious low cut of a few francs with an ingrained pulpy style and more twist and turns than Grand Prix race car driver, but lacks that tour de force it strives to assimilate as because of stiff performances and a wildly untraceable storyline.