It’s only been a couple days since I watched Hélier Cisterne’s Vandal courtesy of iTunes’ My French Film Fest, and I recently discovered that it’s been 15 months since The Hollywood Reporter opened their review with these troubling words:
“While most people associate France with baguettes, berets and bad hygiene, the country actually has one of the world’s most thriving street culture scenes, with a huge hip-hop following and, as anyone who’s ventured into Paris’ suburbs can attest, a landscape marked by graffiti.”
In other words, the French youth embrace artistic expression like most kids of the modern world.
The subject matter of Cisterne’s Vandal may indeed come as a shock to some, but it’s essential to understanding how juvenile delinquents are coping across the world, or in places such as Los Angeles, Athens or the central location of Vandal — Strasbourg, France. With that being said, director Cisterne shines a light on emerging artistry, but doesn’t quite fill out the canvas.
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After numerous arrests, young Chérif (Zinedine Benchenine) leaves his mother exasperated and finds himself shipped off to live with his uncle. Strong male figure. Vocational school. This kid’s about to get a reality check. And his disengaged father lives nearby. But what none of the adults understand is the establishment of an underground tagging group known as ORK. The leader? Chérif’s somewhat nerdy cousin Thomas (Emile Berling), who introduces the new kid to an alternate type of rebellion; a contained rebellion. Street art.
As Chérif continues to struggle with the realities of everyday life, he finds peace in the group’s nighttime excursions. They even have their own hideout where they admire VHS tapes of local artists, including the prolific “Vandal.” He’s the unidentified prophet of the streets; a man (or boy) respected through his ability to elude and tag. Although Chérif seems to understand the premise of ORK’s activities, he reveals a few secrets to an admiring tomboy named Elodie (Chloé Lecerf). Rather innocently, the two classmates drop their guards around each other, which doesn’t go unnoticed by the members of ORK — especially when Elodie winds up in the clubhouse. No chicks allowed, man! Chérif fails to understand the gravity of his predicament, because he’s always pointed a figure at somebody (or something) else.
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Visually, Cisterne’s direction and Hichame Alaouie’s cinematography offer a temp pass into the world of street art, but Vandal fails to explore the meaning behind tagging. Unfortunately, the supporting cast does little to stand out or highlight the genuine artistry behind such acts. Then again, a lack of emotion may explain ORK’s attitude towards Chérif. In other neighborhoods, a code violation could lead to disastrous consequences, but this crew simply doesn’t want to get caught. And they want to find Vandal.
Cisterne poses important questions about adolescent identity and touches on the blossoming of artistic expression in Vandal, but the concealed fury of each character ultimately remains an enigma (along with their understanding of the real world).
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough) is Vague Visages’ founding editor.