Saturn Bowling: In the Gutter, by Scott Nye
“Subversive” is a tough word to consider these days. We’re well past the age of certain topics being considered “off limits” for art from a legal perspective, and working at a small enough budget level, you’ll find just about every kind of unusual act depicted in any kind of unusual way. The internet has played the largest role in this, combined with the corporate overlords of moving-image art reducing everything to “content,” which throws Saw X or Smile alongside CODA and Top Gun: Maverick, with no real institutional barriers aside from whatever parental controls one manages to install.
So when talking about a film like Patricia Mazuy’s Saturn Bowling, when I say it has a subversive streak, I don’t only mean that it has multiple scenes depicting and discussing violence against women, the kind of stuff that understandably would provoke content warnings. There’s a more cynical undercurrent running through it, pointing to a larger societal distrust, and a basic undermining of the meaning of such society, that women have to navigate; all told through the perspective of two violent men.
Arieh Worthalter (Vicky Krieps’s husband in last year’s stellar Hold Me Tight) and relative newcomer Achille Reggiani star as estranged half-brothers Guillaume and Armand. Armand enters the film homeless, breaking into cars to sleep in. Guillaume has it much better, solidifying his reputation as a police detective. But Guillaume was actually raised by their father; Armand was the product of an affair or some relationship gone wrong that did not have either of them active in his life. When their father dies, Guillaume inherits his bowling alley – guess what its name is – and, having little interest in running it, hires Armand as its manager.
Armand isn’t all that good at it. He gives away drinks too easily, doesn’t keep up with inventory, and condescends to his employees. But he likes showing off that he’s the owner. Saturn Bowling is one of those alleys that fashions itself a sort of nightclub, and they have a bustling weekend scene full of young, attractive women. Armand, though handsome, is socially inept, the bowling alley being his only real calling card, but it’s enough to seduce at least one woman. What starts out passionate and playful descends, with a few misinterpreted gestures, into outright violence, and in the film’s most punishing sequence, we see him murder the woman in excruciating detail.
As bad as he is at business management, though, Armand is pretty good at getting away with murder, even with his brother on the case once the body does turn up. The film’s back half turns into what can sometimes feel like a routine procedural, but which is incisive in its portrait of the police. Guillaume isn’t an especially perceptive officer, and we’re given little reason to believe he’s unique in the force. All his supervisor can do is yell at him to do his job better. All his colleagues can do is suggest other dead ends. Even when ordinary citizens approach them with their own concerns, they ignore them and pass them off to other government agencies, unconcerned with the possibility that there could be real danger in their lives, let alone that it could be related to the very case they’re working on.
Mazuy and cinematographer Simon Beaufils (Knife + Heart, Anatomy of a Fall) approach the aesthetic in terms familiar to audiences of contemporary French cinema, with a lot of neon lighting, casual-but-thoughtful blocking, and patience with regards to shot length and pacing. They are particularly adept at catching gazes; a lot of what transpires in the film does through how people look at one another, in pity or fear or confusion, little of it put down in the screenplay, but key to convey through shot composition and pattern. Worthalter is a bit of a weak link in the cast, but his role is also the thinnest and closest to cliche, as a clueless police officer with a temper. Reggiani, however, is a revelation, and is reason enough to see the film for those who can stomach it. As predictable as Armand’s actions become once the film cements who he is, Reggiani keeps him volatile, riding the line right between being amiable enough to believe he could get away with it and violent enough that he could tear down anyone at any time.