There’s a moment at the start of “Don Juan,” Serge Bozon’s sparse musical new adaptation of the classic tale, where the clarity of the basic premise becomes muddled. A group of French thirty-somethings apparently attending a failed wedding stroll through the hall of the venue, where their matching tote bags suddenly suggest they are attending some sort of corporate function instead. Is it even a wedding? Why is everyone so dry and professional? are they really businessmen attending a pharmaceutical convention? The impersonal atmosphere that Bozon immediately cultivates would be more appropriate for the latter, and it could perfectly fit a gray-tinged tale of corporate boredom – but it’s at odds with the grandiose drama that Bozon is trying to build. Although “Don Juan” tries to develop its simple plot and stakes into a deep statement about chauvinism, it is flattened under the weight of its disappointing script and execution, making for an empty viewing experience.
The storyline opens with the aforementioned event, which is indeed a wedding – although it doesn’t go as planned, as Laurent (Tahar Rahim), the film’s modern replacement for famous womanizer Don Juan, is left at the altar by his beloved Julie (Virginie Efira). As viewers see in a confusing and under-explained scene outside the wedding venue, Julie had second thoughts after seeing the way her fiancé eyed a pedestrian as he leaned out of the window of the venue, looking for his wife. Predicting his infidelity, she runs away. He is heartbroken, as evidenced by the moving, lyrically quivering ballad he embarks on. So goes the film’s mediocre musical aspect, which pops up at random moments when characters suddenly burst into mediocre songs. By the time Laurent arrives in the seaside town where he is hired to play the role of Don Juan in a prestigious stage production, the public is familiar with his tormented waltz, as well as the strange mental state he has provoked. He sees Julie’s face on the body of every woman he meets, causing countless moments of confusion and fear as he confronts, grabs and proposes random strangers he’s convinced are his ex. .
This is where the film becomes extremely difficult to watch, as it turns into a bizarre musical about an unkind man terrorizing women on the street. Many great movies have revolved around terrible men, from Mike Leigh’s “Naked” to the Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems,” but “Don Juan” lacks the self-awareness, depth, or realism to pull off entertaining drama or a substantive review. . Instead, Laurent comes across as a skeletal character, devoid of any real motivation or complexity alongside his fixation on Julie — which audiences are supposed to believe belies a genuine disregard for monogamy or commitment. Yet Bozon never actually exemplifies Laurent’s running ways or unreliability in a relationship, as sometimes his worst offense is staring at other women. Aside from the fact that his aforementioned problem with seeing his girlfriend’s face everywhere might explain his look, the film’s insistence that he’s a consummate “Don Juan” because he sometimes checks on women seems ridiculous. He’s awful for weirder reasons (he compulsively harasses women!), but the film constantly tries to get his audience to sympathize with his predicament, reiterating that they’re confused and devastated by Julie’s abandonment.
When Julie finally returns to Laurent’s life after being cast opposite him in “Don Juan,” it feels like the final grueling twist of a movie desperate to make its central character more interesting and universal than him. After all, the film was created as a reversal of the classic story, intended to reframe the feminization of Don Juan as a source of misery and despair in a man’s life. Indeed, Bozon constructs Laurent as a character tormented by his own wandering eye – but his literal wandering eye goes as far as his infidelity, and the extreme pendulum of his misery and euphoria brings over-the-top melodrama to the tale of a simplicity punitive.
By its end, the film has barely developed the idea introduced in its opening: a man who constantly seeks women will never be able to have a meaningful relationship. It’s not a bad hook for a reimagining of “Don Juan,” but the film fails to deepen its ideas or give its characters dimensionality and texture in their portrayal. To its credit, however, the film is beautifully shot with some surprisingly unique locations and solid performances from Rahim and Efira, but the beautiful visuals can’t save it from the atmosphere of superficial misery that permeates every moment. Nor are the almost inaudible musical numbers.
—Editor Harper R. Oreck can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @harperrayo.