Vincent Must Die


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Vincent Must Die
"The writer-director team of Mathieu Neart and Stéphan Castang shows a repeated willingness to take risks which really elevate the film." | Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

One of the most talked-about films on the 2023 festival circuit, and eagerly received at Fantasia, Vincent Must Die has one of those central concepts that is so strong that one fears there will be nothing else to it. A great pitch is often all it takes to secure box office success. One of the great pleasures of watching it is seeing it defy that expectation again and again, constantly twisting in different directions and finding, in the process, an emotional depth which is something special in itself.

The pitch, then, is this: one day, as graphic designer Vincent (Karim Leklou) is going about his routine activities, people start attacking him. The first time it happens it’s a young intern whom he has been teasing, and it seems as if the kid just snapped under pressure. Despite his injuries, Vincent is sympathetic and doesn’t want to press charges. When another colleague attacks him, afterwards saying that he doesn’t know why he did so, the experience is much more unsettling. The boss does what bosses too often do, accepting the claims of the perpetrators, and firmly tells Vincent that he’ll be happier working from home for a while. Then there is a third attack, and this time it comes from a total stranger.

Vincent isn’t stupid. He figures out that something out of the ordinary is happening and starts taking notes, working out rules, determining that the biggest risk is eye contact. Surviving in the city is hard, but fortunately his father has an old country house where he can take refuge, amongst the quiet fields of the Loire valley. Avoiding people altogether is complicated, but he manages to find ways of minimising the risks and finding out more about his condition, as news reports heard in the background address a rising number of inexplicable violent incidents going on around the country. Then he has an unusual encounter, and everything changes.

The writer-director team of Mathieu Neart and Stéphan Castang shows a repeated willingness to take risks which really elevate the film (and mean one can forgive little oddities like nobody experimenting with sunglasses). There are no conventional heroics here. Being forced into a violent encounter is always a negative experience. Vincent doesn’t want to hurt anyone and soon discovers that anybody, no matter how small or fragile, is capable of hurting him. The rapid social marginalisation created by his vulnerability is heavy with social commentary, but the film goes beyond that to explore the experience of the assailants and ask how it might feel to realise one had seriously harmed or killed someone else whilst acting on impulse.

Although gender is not part of the equation here, viewers might be reminded of ‘Raccoona Sheldon’’s influential short story The Screwfly Solution. The focus here is not on explanation but on experience. The characters’ sense of helplessness and incomprehension naturally reflects what many feel in facing the existential problems of today. Hope can emerge unexpectedly, but so can new forms of horror. There is never anything gratuitous about the depictions of violence. The filmmakers shrewdly understand that not only do we not need that, but that the more ordinary the incidents we see, the more frightening they are. In France only the gendarmes have guns (which makes a scene with a police road block significantly scarier and highlights the additional vulnerability faced by minorities when the state turns against them). Most people just use their fists, which is more relatable and reminds us how easily this sort of violence can happen.

Leklou is a wonderful lead, creating an everyman character whom anybody might relate to but who has enough specificity to feel real and to matter. There’s also a great performance from Vimala Pons as Margaux, a woman he meets along the way (and who gives the impression that she would be a difficult person to interact with even without the complications caused by his condition – but in an enjoyable way). François Chattot provides soulful support as Vincent’s father and it would be churlish not to mention the good work done by Susie, who deservedly received a Highly Commended Canine award from the Palm Dog jury in Cannes for her turn as our hero’s canine companion, Sultan.

Though very dark in places, this isn’t a grim film – it rattles along at a fair pace and finds natural humour with which to balance the rest. Rather than sinking into despair, it finds ways of celebrating the drive to stay alive even in the most difficult of circumstances. It’s imaginatively shot with some stunning set pieces, and you’d be a fool to miss it.

Reviewed on: 21 Jul 2023
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Vincent Must Die packshot
Vincent finds himself under attack for no apparent reason overnight. When the phenomenon intensifies, he must run and change his way of life completely.

Director: Stéphan Castang

Writer: Mathieu Naert

Starring: Karim Leklou, Vimala Pons, François Chattot, Karoline Rose Sun, Emmanuel Vérité

Year: 2023

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: France, Belgium

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