Locarno 2022 review: Saturn Bowling (Patricia Mazuy)

“Mazuy effectively turns the film’s central location, the bowling alley, into a neon-lit inferno that seems to come straight out of one of David Lynch’s fever dreams.”

About half an hour into Patricia Mazuy’s Saturn Bowling a man and a woman, having just met, end up in bed together. What starts as playful becomes passionate then rough sex, until roughness turns into something downright violent. It is an explosive scene, not easy to watch, but it gives the film a big jolt to launch the audience into the second act. Sadly, Saturn Bowling doesn’t fully live up to the expectations the scene sets. It isn’t the fault of Mazuy’s direction, which is smart and sharp, creating a truly menacing atmosphere. Nor is it down to the acting of the two lead actors, Arieh Worthalter and Achille Reggiani, who both give compelling, strong performances. The issue lies mainly in the screenplay, which Mazuy co-wrote with Yves Thomas, their third effort together after 2000’s Saint-Cyr and 2018’s Paul Sanchez Is Back! Their testosterone-laden tale devolves into a string of clichés that turns this thriller that started off strong into a bog standard serial-killer affair, where every twist and turn becomes predictable.

When police investigator Guillaume (Worthalter) inherits the titular bowling alley after his father dies, he enlists his half-brother Armand (Reggiani) as the new manager of the place. Armand, estranged and full of hatred for his deceased dad, has no experience in the field, having worked as a bouncer, but after some hesitation takes the bait. There is tension between the brothers, but as time goes by and Armand seems to run the establishment pretty competently, Guillaume lets up on his brother. He is far too busy with a new case anyway, in which the victims of a serial killer are piling up in a local cemetery. The main point of contention remains a group of big-game hunters of which Guillaume and Armand’s father was a member, and who treat the bowling alley as their local hangout spot even after their friend has died. This group is also in direct opposition with local animal-rights activist Xuan (Y Lan Lucas), who crosses paths with Guillaume when he saves her from one of the hunters and a loaded shotgun. The two become romantically involved, but this will eventually (and expectedly) put Xuan in danger.

What strikes one most about Saturn Bowling is the atmosphere that lies like a thick and suffocating blanket over the proceedings. Brooding and dark, the film feels like it could explode in a bout of violence at any moment, and that early scene only raised those expectations. Mazuy effectively turns the film’s central location, the bowling alley, into a neon-lit inferno that seems to come straight out of one of David Lynch’s fever dreams. She also cleverly juxtaposes the two brothers: Armand is never seen in broad daylight, whereas Guillaume’s scenes are mostly set during daytime hours. The times he turns up at the bowling alley seem to influence him though, and not for the better, as if there is an evil and toxic darkness hanging over the place. The constant dread is accentuated by Wyatt E.’s fantastically eerie retro synth score.

It is disappointing then that all of this great work behind the camera is mostly undone by the triteness of the story. A smörgåsbord of genre tropes is laid out: a love interest who is poised to be the killer’s final victim, the demanding police superior who threatens to take the protagonist off the case, the final showdown between cop and killer that is on a knife’s edge. And some of these elements were hardly necessary, the insertion of Xuan in some scenes seemingly even a surprise to the character herself. Characters’ decisions and actions are more informed by plot machinations than by human logic. What started off promising and intriguing is turned into a rote story where you can guess most beats, including who the killer is.

The film can be seen (and probably should be) as a rejection of toxic masculinity, and Mazuy lays that bare in the film’s most impressive (for better or worse) scene, which conjures up images of the infamous rape scene in Irréversible and gives off vibes of Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. Men in this film are vats of pent-up rage, even the ‘good’ ones. The single female character of note is irrelevant, both to the script as well as to the characters in it, though this could also be a result of Lucas’ flat performance and the total lack of chemistry between her and Worthalter. But in a sense that is the point in this film where male ego dominates. That could have led to a poignant statement, but unfortunately Saturn Bowling is far from a perfect strike as it skirts the proverbial gutter.