The Working Class Goes to the Back Lot: Kahn Prosaically Processes a Director’s Strife
What should cinema be and who should it be made for? It’s a familiar, increasingly dire dilemma plaguing proponents of a craft who must contend with their own commodification even before the inception of a project. The economics of cinema is certainly nothing new, considering it’s been the reality of a communal based medium tied to profitability as the only means of sustainability, and countless films have depicted the often fraught conflict between content vs. risk assessment vs. revenue. For his latest film (and second release of 2023), Cédric Kahn attempts to expiate some demons with Making Of, the tale of a celebrated if declining director who struggles to complete a film about factory workers battling their masters in ways which mirrors the production’s own dilemma when a pair of sophomoric producers back out over the demands of a happy ending. While there are passing moments of interest, Kahn, perhaps subconsciously, resurrects hoary Hollywood tropes from the early days of the studio system, creating a showbiz fantasy for a wizened mentor and his banal collaboration with a bright, young novice tasked with capturing documentary footage of the troubled production.
Simon (Denis Podalydes) is a famous French director who is about to start shooting his latest feature about a group of factory workers organizing to protect their place of work from being relocated. On the first day of shooting, he runs into various issues with his egocentric lead star Alain (Jonathan Cohen) and a somewhat disinterested youth who’s been commissioned to film a concurrent ‘making of’ featurette of the filmmaking process. He’s accosted by an extra on set, Joseph (Stefan Crepon), who hands Simon a script he’s been working on. At the end of the day’s shoot, a pair of producers arrive alongside his long-time producing collaborator Marquez (Xavier Beauvois), announcing they are pulling their million euros if he doesn’t utilize the happier ending from a modified version of the script he never agreed upon. Refusing to compromise, he’s assuaged by Marquez who determines to find other funding sources, while producer Vivian (Emmanuelle Bercot) works on allocating what budget they have available to them to pay cast and crew as the shoot commences. Meanwhile, Simon has tapped Joseph to film the featurette, which captures the grueling struggle to complete the film. But just as the shoot nears the finish, Marquez is unable to secure the necessary funds, throwing Simon and his committed cast into chaos.
As compared to his other 2023 release, The Goldman Process, which stages the 1975 trial of Pierre Goldman, Kahn seems to be further inspired by the element of recreation and reenactment with Making Of. Ironically, a trio of actual notable directors appear on the sidelines for Simon, including Emmanuelle Bercot and Xavier Beauvois, playing a composite of angel and devil on his shoulder in their assistance (or lack of) in making sure the film is completed with the budget they are actually working with. Denis Podalydes plays a familiar, fussy figure of a man consumed by his passion to the degree where he can’t make any concessions, which has also ruined his relationship with estranged wife Alice (Valerie Donzelli) and their two children, all appearing in fleeting Zoom calls looking annoyed. Kahn downplays satirical shenanigans involving the egotistical lead (Jonathan Cohen, also appearing in Quentin Dupieux’s Daaaaaali!), who seems to initially be in collusion with the pair of cretinous producers who insist on selling fairy tales about factory workers. Ultimately, he seems to prize quality over box office formula.
Kahn’s script, co-written by Fanny Burdino and Samuel Doux, sells its ideas to us shorthand, announcing itself as an exploration of cinema through a director who prizes catharsis over escapism – and is there room for both? Is profit automatically negated when we skirt too close to reality? While these are eternally interesting conundrums, at least in how we reconcile these elements as creatives or consumers, Kahn drops the ball in the second half of the film by stumbling into a highly romanticized fairy tale. While the film Simon is making looks like some kind of Stephane Brize production starring Vincent Lindon we’ve seen some version of already, the developing relationship he has with the sycophantic Joseph, who peddles an unsolicited screenplay he’s spent seven years writing (about a friend who killed himself, which we get a minor, unalluring reenactment of) is apparently brilliant, and as antiquated as Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), in which a naive country girl moves from kept woman to stage sensation virtually overnight. Nearly all of Crepon’s screen time, especially his relationship with the production’s lead, played as a customarily oblivious ingenue by Souheila Yacoub, is ruinously cliched (which is a pity considering his scene stealing in Ozon’s Peter Von Kant, 2022).
Wearying, if only because Making Of sounds exactly like countless cinematic conversations we’ve heard before, one wishes Kahn had managed to make at least one aspect of this film about filmmaking interesting or impassioned rather than paralleling these elements of brainless executives with dangling carrots vs. entitled creatives from the old guard who believe they’re above compromise. Somewhere in this stew of basic elements an intoxicating medley still exists, but Making Of is as humdrum as its title.
Reviewed on September 4th at the 2023 Venice Film Festival – Out of Competition. 119 Mins.