Given the sheer volume of films coming out of France, a handful are inevitably going to slip through the cracks and unjustly open to little fanfare at splashy international festivals. This appears to have been the case for Jérôme Reybaud’s fiction directorial debut, “4 Days in France,” which had an under-the-radar debut in a Venice sidebar and now receives its North American Premiere at New Directors/New Films, a festival programmed precisely to spotlight such unsung features. Reybaud certainly has grand ambitions with his first narrative film, a 140-minute austere comedy about one man’s quixotic quest for hookups. Admirably in concert with other recent attempts at redefining and updating the parameters of queer cinema, “4 Days in France” is nonetheless bound to test the patience of international audiences as the film’s formal rigor, as well upper-class characters and ideas, hinder its approachability.
As its English title suggests, “4 Days in France” holds to a prescribed timeline as it tracks Pierre Thomas (Pascal Cervo) in his largely aimless wanderings through the country. A parallel narrative follows the efforts of his lover Paul (Arthur Igual) to track Pierre down, who had left their apartment early in the morning without notice and for no apparent reason. The insistent usage of GPS and dating app Grindr throughout “4 Days in France” ensures that this hunt feels bracingly contemporary. Early on, Pierre solicits a sexual encounter from a phone number written on the wall of a public toilet, only to later have to rely on his car’s navigation system in order to find this would-be partner — he is both literally and figuratively lost, with the destination always out of reach.
Meanwhile, Paul’s plan for getting a bead on Pierre is equally hi-tech (and more ridiculous): to drive to the geographical center of France, find his lover’s pseudonymous hookup profile and then isolate his location within a reasonable radius. One would think this needle-in-haystack approach is a fool’s errand, but Reybaud’s vision of France — comparable to Alain Guiraidie’s “Staying Vertical” or “Stranger by the Lake”— unearths an underground gay network in the provinces that has the potential to reunite the two lovers. The inevitable disappointment in equating “4 Days in France” with Guiraidie, however—especially as this is the most popular shorthand for festival programmers and sales agents alike — is that Reybaud’s approach to a new queer cinema lacks the erotic charge that characterizes his compatriot’s work. Instead, “4 Days in France” plays as an almost entirely intellectual enterprise and moreover, one that doesn’t capture contemporary life as a gay man as convincingly as it aspires to.
“4 Days in France” falls prey to that certain tendency of French cinema; specifically, Reybaud’s fiction debut is rarefied to the point of inaccessibility. Dual protagonists Paul and Pierre seem to have every luxury in life, as the former funds his lavish lifestyle investing in theater productions (only in France!) and the latter, in one of his random encounters, runs into his childhood French tutor (Nathalie Richard, who should be familiar to fans of “Irma Vep”) with whom he shares a passion for poet Arthur Rimbaud. Both men inhabit these lives so completely that they become impossible to identify with — an effect that only compounds when paired with stylized performances and an intellectual, lust-less approach to sexuality.
The criticism isn’t meant to imply that Reybaud is oblivious to the bourgeois air of his characters, poking fun at their social status most transparently in a bizarre scene that sees an opportune thief burgle Pierre’s car. Not only does she make her victim feel guilty for coming for her day’s takings, she also insists on keeping only the things that have the most sentimental value. The CDs are useless, his underwear can stay, but his manuscript (and its manuscripts) must be absconded! Funny in spurts, these Luis Buñuel-like turns (one interaction common to both Pierre and Paul is a pretty clear reference to “The Milky Way”) generally underserve the promise of the scenario — that is, the film Buñuel might have made if his hapless socialites were constantly checking Grindr.
If nothing else, Reybaud’s debut flaunts his knack for casting, particularly with the lead performance by Pascal Cervo. An ideal performer for Bresson-inspired delivery, Cervo’s short stature, boyish round face and wide, perpetually wet eyes communicate a sadness and longing that the narrative of “4 Days in France” keeps obscured. Given how the French film industry like to share and cultivate its new talents, expect the performer, currently best known for his work with Paul Vecchiali (on whom Reybaud produced a documentary in 2012) to appear more frequently in higher-profile features. Likewise, the supporting players that Pierre and Paul happen upon are frequently memorable and proffer a provincial warmth to the otherwise sterile “4 Days in France.” If only the rest of the film could be so full-blooded and enticing. [C+]