The midlife crisis of a wealthy white man hardly sounds like a story we need right now. We’ve had more than enough men in film history to feel sorry for, and now Rock’n Roll expects us to sympathize with a rich, handsome César award-winning celebrity who is also, let it be known, married to Marion Cotillard — i.e. the gem of the acting universe? As if.
Yet the new French film — written, directed by and starring Guillaume Canet — succeeds by taking its tired plot to absurdist lengths. Rather than fitting the mold of every realistically cute midlife crisis we’ve seen before, Rock’n Roll catapults the charismatic Canet into a realm of desperation, humiliation and manic transformation. It’s a pleasure to watch such an overconfident leading man’s ordinary insecurities lead him to a place where indoor bean gardens, balloon-faced Botox injections and a gator-hunting safari TV show becomes the fantastic new normal.
Like Steve Coogan in The Trip trilogy, Canet stars as an exaggerated version of himself. Having recently turned 40 and accepted his first decidedly unsexy “dad” role, he’s also turned paranoid overnight. Never mind the beautiful wife (Cotillard), active career and sea of personal assistants, Canet is convinced that his spotlight is fading, and unless he does something to change his wholesome image, he’ll be doomed to play boring, old men for the rest of his life.
The joke, of course, is that Canet’s image is fine and his mission to change is futile. Attempts to bond with his hot, younger costar lead nowhere because he can’t hold his liquor, he can’t smoke without coughing and he still thinks “rock ‘n’ roll” is a cool phrase to say. Switching to leather pants doesn’t help either because every time he bends over his fanny comes out to say hello. These punch lines come with no surprise, and the first hour of the film drags as a result. Canet is a dork trying to be “hip” — it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
The only thing that makes the first half of Rock’n Roll tolerable is the ebullient presence of Cotillard. As the actress best known for her knockout dramatics in Oscar-ready roles playing Edith Piaf (La Vie en rose), Lady Macbeth (Macbeth) and a woman tragically paralyzed by whale attack (Rust and Bone), she stuns once again for entirely different reasons. She’s funny — really and truly funny — and like Canet, Cotillard is playing herself, which makes her performance all the more exciting. She bops around the apartment that she shares with Canet, disinterested in sex because she’s too busy practicing a ridiculous Québécois accent.
Following a visit to a barefoot plastic surgeon, Canet’s quest to recapture his youth devolves into something funnier and more grotesque than imaginable. Wine is spilled. Protein milkshakes are chugged. A meeting with Ben Foster (playing himself) goes wonderfully and horribly wrong. And no matter what lengths Canet goes to craft his family-man persona into something more edgy, nothing works. The film is undoubtedly overlong at 123 minutes, but this extended running time is also what gives Canet’s downfall an epic quality. The film is a basically a cautionary tale, warning us against narcissism and the perils of focusing too heavily on our own image. How much power do we have in shaping our identities? Not as much as we think.
Rock’n Roll also stands as further proof that the French consider Americans to be ludicrous specimens. Canet’s experimentations with plastic surgery and muscle-enhancement take place on French soil, but his ultimate fate propels him towards the States. And not just any state, but Florida. In this way, the film is a minor window into how the French view Americans. The view is preposterous, but at least it’s fun.
From Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard to Gena Rowlands in Opening Night, countless female stars have had their insecurities about aging dramatized for the big screen. Hollywood is a tough business and nobody has it tougher than the female star gazing at her face in the mirror, realizing she is destined for obscurity. The same isn’t true for male stars because everyone knows that Brad Pitt and George Clooney can age with dignity, while Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman have to cake on makeup each morning or face the death of their careers. This is one of the reasons why Rock’n Roll is refreshing. We don’t often see a star like Canet tackle fears about aging. However, it’s worth noting that while Canet’s fears about aging are held up as folly, those of Swanson, Rowlands and every other Baby Jane are anything but.
Canet’s performance seems to come from a place of real insecurity, and the resulting film plays out like an externalized catharsis. By exposing his fears for the sake of our entertainment, he’s shedding certain demons that are wont to haunt us all. His privileged position as a celebrity certainly isn’t relatable, but it’s also what makes Rock’ n Roll so much fun to watch. How wonderful it is to see a beautiful and powerful person fall flat on their face.
Erica Peplin (@ericapeplin) is a writer and editor for Spectrum Culture. She lives in New York.