(Palm Pictures) Georges Babluani, Pascal Bongard, Aurelien Recoing, Fred Ulysse, Nicolas Pignon, Vania Vilers, Olga Legrand, Christopher van de Velde, Agustin Legrand, Jo Prestia. Directed by Gela Babluani
Desperation can make us do extraordinary things. We will do whatever it takes to get out of the situation we’re in, risk anything – even our own lives.
Sebastien (Georges Babluani), a contractor barely making ends meet, accepts a job in a rundown old home for an immigrant Georgian couple. When he accidentally puts a hole in their roof, he overhears a conversation indicating that there is a package that promises great riches. When the Georgian owner dies of a drug overdose, Sebastien decides to take the package for himself.
It leads him to a dilapidated hotel in the middle of nowhere where a game is going on, a dangerous game that the French authorities would very much like to infiltrate and stop but a game that delivers to its victors great riches. Sebastien has no idea what he’s getting himself into from the get-go and by the time he realizes what’s going on, getting out is not an option. In fact, his only option is to win.
I’m deliberately leaving the plot summary very vague, because the less you know about this movie, the more enjoyment you’re likely to take out of it. It’s well-plotted and when you look back on it, you realize that the entire movie switched gears completely near the middle of the film, but so expertly is it done that not only do you not notice it but it feel very organic within the framework of the movie.
Gela Babluani won the Luigi de Laurentiis award at the prestigious Venice Film Festival for the best first feature by a director, as well as the Grand Jury Prize for world cinema at the Sundance Festival, and it’s not hard to see why. A Georgian immigrant himself (whose brother plays Sebastien in the film), he has delivered a marvelous film, full of suspense and tension from the opening moments to the very last shot.
The mood is enhanced by the black and white photography, serving to make this an almost film noir kind of atmosphere, which is almost Hitchcockian in its simplicity yet with an elegant Gallic permeation that gives it an extra little twist.
Georges Babluani is marvelous as Sebastien. He is a bit on the passive side, mainly because terrible things tend to happen when he takes chances. He is neither a coward nor a hero but somewhere in between, an ordinary man driven by circumstances he doesn’t quite understand into extraordinary conditions. He behaves much the same as I think I’d behave in similar circumstances.
The game that he is forced to play (I won’t reveal much of it so as not to ruin the powerful effect of the movie) is stark and brutal, and is filmed in an almost industrial manner. Orders are barked with military precision and shots of stark, bare light bulbs reinforce the utilitarian feel. While there is a great deal of violence, there isn’t a whole lot of gore, at least not in the traditional sense. This isn’t a Saw movie except in only the barest sense of sadism in the creation of the game itself.
The thing that is the most extraordinary is that the game depicted here actually exists in France, and apparently it has been going on for some time. The movie is about the circumstances that would lead someone to play in a game with such high stakes, and in that sense the movie is wildly successful. If I had a quibble, there are just two; the people running the game are depicted as almost cliches and in some ways that makes them more terrifying because we don’t really get too much of an insight to them, but in the end the film would have been better if we had. Secondly, the incredible suspense of the first two thirds of the movie breaks down a little in the third and the ending is a bit anti-climactic.
Beyond that, however, this is a terrific movie that is well-worth seeing. Some might find the starkness off-putting and there are some who abhor both subtitles and black and white, but if you get past those prejudices, you will find a movie of extraordinary power and substance well worth your effort in getting to know better.
WHY RENT THIS: A marvelous air of tension and suspense filmed in beautiful black and white, giving it a feeling of a Hitchcock film noir with a French sophistication.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie isn’t able to maintain the suspenseful tone of the first third, and some of the characters surrounding the game are tissue-thin.
FAMILY VALUES: Mature subject matter and some scenes of shocking violence make this a no-no for child viewing.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tzameti is the number 13 in Georgian, so the title is literally “13 Thirteen.”
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a surprisingly bountiful amount of interesting extras, like an interview with someone who actually participated in one of these underground shooting matches and survived, as well as a short film by Gene Laufenberg called The Sunday Game that fits nicely into the overall themes of 13 Tzameti. Finally, there’s an interview with Babluani discussing life as an immigrant in France. Overall, a very strong collection of extras, a definite keeper.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
TOMORROW: Lemon Tree