99 Francs

Jean Dujardin in 99 Francs

99 Francs is French filmmaker Jan Kounen’s critique of consumer culture, based on the book of the same title by Frédéric Beigbeder. After 1 hour and 40 minutes of slick filmmaking, replete with ironic references to famous ad campaigns, beautiful people and lots of sex and drugs and rock & roll, the movie ends with a meek call to action stating that with a mere fraction of the money spent on advertising each year, we could put an end to world hunger. This astonishingly lame ending undermines any value the movie might have had.

I suppose the altruistic blurb at the end of the movie is the kind of palliative the filmmakers needed to include in order to convince themselves that their movie has a higher moral purpose. The question is, why do they even bother? In reality, it is just a story about a narcissistic, self-loathing fashion victim who sees the error of his ways. The great irony, of course, is that had they spent all their time and money on charitable projects instead of making this movie, they could have contributed much more to ending world hunger.

Himself an ex-creative adviser for an ad agency, Beigbeder wrote 99 Francs under the encouragement of another famous French author, Michel Houellebecq. Octavo, the main character, hoovers cocaine in rails forming the numbers 666, pops whatever pills he can get his hands on, screws hookers, drives under the influence, and , in his spare time, works for France’s most powerful ad agency as a creative adviser. After a drug-fueled escapade in which several people might have been hurt, he decides to redeem himself. The movie offers two endings – one happy, one sad – and they both have him renouncing his consumerist lifestyle: one treats him as a Christ-like martyr, the other has him living out a Rousseauian back-to-nature fantasy on an island. Grade school stuff, I know, but not so awful as it sounds.

In the adept hands of Jan Kounen, the movie is visually-engaging, rhythmic, and yes, entertaining. The problem is the story. Just like the book, the overall feeling is one of disingenuousness. Remember the scene in Fight Club where Tyler Durden goes on about the superficiality of our consumer lifestyle? You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fucking khakis. Somehow, a hot-shit guy dressed in fashionable clothes isn’t the most convincing of anti-consumerism preachers. That’s kind of what happens in 99 Francs.

Even with the main character’s redemption, 99 Francs gives the impression that it is more intent on looking cool than trying to open people’s eyes to the evils of consumerism. Basically, Jan Kounen and Frédéric Beigbeder deliver us the cinematic equivalent of putting a “Stop Global Warming” bumper sticker on a gas-guzzling Hummer.

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