Thomas Bidegain’s debut feature, the elegantly shot (“anamorphic ‘Scope, using old lenses”) and deeply unsettling, “Les Cowboys,” takes John Ford’s iconic 1956 western, “The Searchers” as its framework and updates it with the geopolitical realities of globalization. (And while this is Bidegain’s first directorial effort, he is a master screenwriter, known for his great collaborations with Jacques Audiard, “A Prophet,” “Rust and Bone” and “Dheephan.”)
In a vast landscape in eastern France, families involved in a very quirky/incongruous subculture (to my American eyes), gather for the down home “Festival Country 1994.” Dressed in cowboy hats and boots, bandanas and denim, and celebrating with live music, line dancing, horseback and mechanical bull riding and shooting, they’re self-styled cowboys, flying American and Confederate flags. Alain Balland (François Damiens), well-known and well-liked in the community, attends with his wife Nicole, 16-year-old daughter, Kelly, and young son, Kid.
Faux reluctant to take the stage, he’s coaxed up, and playing guitar, sings “Tennessee Waltz,” unaware that a lyric will very soon prove prophetic–he’s about to lose his “little darlin’ “–as Kelly vanishes from the fairgrounds.
The family is quickly able to determine that Kelly has run away with Ahmed (Alain and his friends, quietly racist, consider it a kidnapping), her young Muslim boyfriend whom her father didn’t know she was dating. Alain is assured by the police that she’ll return in a few days. In a bar, where he and Nicole meet with supportive friends, Patsy Cline’s, “I Fall To Pieces” is being played.
But as the unimaginable becomes reality, Kelly’s absence crowds out all other possibilities for Alain. Consumed with bringing his daughter home, his search becomes a poisonous obsession that propels him into unknown emotional and physical territory and as years pass, breaks apart his family and ultimately destroys him.
After Alain’s death, Kid (Finnegan Oldfield ), fine-boned and watchful (who had often accompanied his father to rescue Kelly), internalizes the older man’s disquietude and longing. Post- 9/11, working with an aid organization in refugee camps in Pakistan, his focus remains on finding his sister.
Setting out on horseback with a large, wild-haired, “gone native” American (John C. Reilly), who “trades money for people,” they arrive in a teeming city where Kid miraculously spots Ahmed and Shahzana (Ellora Torchia), a Pakistani woman he married after Kelly. The encounter quickly turns deadly and Kid is bribed out of a Pakistani jail by French consular officials. Kids trades a heavy gold bracelet for Shahzana’s freedom. Unsafe in Pakistan, she leaves with Kid for an unknown future in France.
The uneasy and violent mingling of cultures, which destroyed Kid’s original family, results in the creation of his new one. And in a unexpected series of devastating and beautiful close-ups, Bidegain shows that some measure of peace, or at least acceptance, now co-exists with the longing.
“Les Cowboys” will open on Friday June 24 at Lincoln Plaza and Sunshine Cinema, and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal .