Les Cowboys (2015) Film Review from the 59th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival, a movie directed by Thomas Bidegain, and starring Francois Damiens, Finnegan Oldfield, Agathe Dronne, John C. Reilly, Francis Leplay, and Mounir Margoum.
In the high-tech era of The Avengers and Batman v Superman, there seems to be little place for that old, almost quaint folk figure: the cowboy. Sure, the major studios release a series of western films in close succession every couple years, but for the most part, the genre is regarded as dead as the literary trend that inspired it. A reason commonly cited for this is the perception that westerns, with their time- and setting-specific conventions and often unfortunate depictions of racial minorities, are no longer relevant to modern tastes and concerns. However, as films like Thomas Bidegain’s Les Cowboys, show nothing could be further from the truth.
Of course, Cowboys is not a typical western by any means. For one thing, it’s set at the turn of the century – the twentieth century, to be precise, about a hundred years after the Wild West was finally tamed. Secondly, the film is set in France, which, at first glance, might be about as far removed from the ideal setting for such a movie as you could get. But although the environment and trappings are decidedly not western, the movie’s soul most certainly is.
Instead of having horse-riding gunslingers, the cowboys of the movie are French enthusiasts of American country music and culture. Celebrating their shared interest, the cowboys meet to eat dishes associated with the Old West and dance to tunes like Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz”. Alain Balland (Damiens) is one such individual, regularly bringing his family to these gatherings. At first, it appears the film will be a heartfelt salute to the joy of exploring cultures different from your own. But soon enough, it becomes clear that it’s taking a less-rosy, if not entirely negative, position on multiculturalism.
The family’s mirth turns to concern when they realize that Kelly (Iliana Zabeth), the daughter, has gone missing. As Alain searches for her, he learns that she has done something that many Europeans fear their children will do: left her home and comfortable life behind to run off with a suspected terrorist to live in the Middle East. If Alain and his compatriots are cowboys, then the Islamists are the Indians, foreign forces rarely seen but nevertheless regarded with fear and loathing by the protagonists. By tapping into this very contemporary, very serious fear, the movie is able to make the stale western convention of the hero going after a woman abducted by Native American raiders feel both real and relevant.
Lest anyone come away with the impression that the production is a bitter screed against the Muslim world and a rousing defense of Western civilization, it must be noted that it neither paints Islam and Muslims in a particularly bad light nor showers praise on French and American culture. While Alain and his fellow Frenchmen regard Muslim characters with suspicion and distrust, it is abundantly clear that this is their perspective rather than the film’s. Although the crowd at the beginning of the movie love a uniquely American form of music and lifestyle, the only American who actually appears in the film, a disheveled spy (Reilly) who befriends Georges (Oldfield) when he goes to Pakistan to look for Kelly, is a treacherous soul who leaves Georges at the tender mercies of a jailer in his time of need. This ambivalent attitude towards cultural pluralism may distance the movie from traditional westerns, but Les Cowboys definitely feels at home in the uncertainty of this post-9/11, post-Iraq War world.
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