Cannes 2021 review: Les héroïques (Maxime Roy)

Maxime Roy’s Les héroïques is a film ostensibly about redemption, or perhaps more accurately the moments before redemption where things could go either way. Michel is a fifty-something former drug addict and alcoholic, making ends meet and struggling through sobriety. He has a seventeen-year-old son with whom he spends most of his time, and frequently looks after his newborn, a child he had with the love of his life Helene – a woman who no longer wants him. He has no job, his home is grim and prone to flooding, his relationships are all strained, his health is failing, his father is ill, and the good times, however good they were, are most certainly behind him.

There is a central challenge in Les héroïques – how do filmmakers make a film about poverty and addiction for a fundamentally middle-class audience without descending into a sort of miserabilist poverty porn? Eschewing score, with artistry in its cinematography, artistry in its scripting, and complexity in its storyline, this film sets out with two key targets – an authenticity in its portrayal of its central character and a truthfulness in its societal depiction. The lack of artistic flourish in the film and its spare storytelling is a decision made, one imagines, so as to not interrupt or conflict with these goals. The film is successfully authentic feeling, but not always successfully real.

François Creton’s character of Michel is a deeply authentic creation; furtive, with a sort of beat-down rodent elegance. The camera is rarely off him and his semi-panicked place amongst others. He isn’t coping, and one gets the impression that if he ever did cope it was some time ago and with the numbing aid of narcotics. There is an interesting feeling of time travel to the film, or at least there is the sense that Michel has recently woken from some twenty-year stupor to find himself dazed and unsettled by contemporary demands. The filmmakers have chosen the central motif of a diploma to elicit this; he wants to work as a mechanic, and the world is telling him he needs a diploma. He contends that he has the skills, so he doesn’t see the added point of a diploma, and this stubbornness is his undoing.

The central conceit of the film at the start is that Michel thinks he is at rock bottom and that he is a survivor. But he isn’t there yet. Most of the film charts the descent of a man’s life from the position of parlous to positively catastrophic. And from there, an opportunity to reshape himself. There is a powerful message here – recovery is not about what you stop doing, it is about what you start doing. Michel is a man who has stopped taking the drugs and the alcohol but is too selfish, conceited, and possibly too limited to really start the hard work of changing.

It makes the film a hard watch; Michel is a sort of kindness sponge, sucking up the kindness of those around him and mostly offering nothing in response but self-pity. This is authentic, the kindness and support offered to those in recovery is unconditional and it’s nice at least to not be flooded with the usual saccharine Hollywood version of addiction. One might enjoy Creton’s creation of Michel, but it is hard to say he is a likeable character; this is a film that centers on an unlovable manchild. He has moments where he is the one offering kindness, but they are few and far between, and perhaps we should have seen a little more of this.

The societal depiction of a former drug addict and the support systems he finds himself by turns accessing and excluded from are slightly off. It is excellent to see a substance abuse service depicted on screen – it is an area of drama rarely touched on by filmmakers. But much of this film’s drama is extracted from slight inaccuracies – the barriers that come up around him probably wouldn’t in real life (others would). This is probably the same with every medical or police procedural where audience members in the know would roll their eyes at much of what is put on screen. For my part, I have spent over twenty years managing drug and alcohol services and can’t help asking questions around Michel’s transition off methadone (an opiate used in small quantities to substitute for the street opiate heroin). Why is he attending Alcoholics Anonymous and not Narcotics Anonymous? Why when his flat is flooded is he talking about emergency housing to drug workers in a drug service, as opposed to a housing department who would likely see it as a duty to house him given his home is literally under water? These are obviously niggles, but they are also the key cruxes of the film, so if not accurate what is the purpose of a film whose evident goal is accuracy?

The best moment of the film, a relief after a ten-minute showcase of degradation that sees Michel relapse, shows the power of the recovery group. Simple, heartfelt, his group shows him the love and kindness he needed at his lowest point. It is nicely done: recovery is a series of tiny victories, and this is well-captured.

Creton’s performance will garner praise, and it is a rare total embodiment of a role. The other actors around him, especially Ariane Ascaride and Patrick d’Assumçao, do their part with underwritten roles. You will see a man’s life collapse, and you will see a positive depiction of the start of recovery. You will also see some small signs of directorial verve – the sequence of Michel’s father on the back of a bike is lovely, so too an almost abstract sequence of self-tattooing. There are too few of these moments of visual elegance, as though the director feels that stories about addiction and poverty need to be portrayed in an endless jittery vérité. This is a shame, and a few more of these moments could have tipped this film over into something artful while retaining its truth.

The story in the end is probably too one-dimensional, which is again an opportunity missed. Michel is portrayed as a newbie to recovery; he is spoken to by his sponsor and given a copy of the Reflections (a classic tome) as though he’s new to it all, but this doesn’t quite make sense, as he says he has been on methadone for 20 years. The real drama in depicting a fifty-something person going through recovery probably isn’t that they are going through it new, but that they have been through it many times and they have to try to make it work again, to make sense again. That’s the real challenge and I think this film slightly misses that.