A Self-Made Hero

Friday October 3, 1997

     Duplicity is always intriguing, but impostors, people who painstakingly create false identities from the ground up, fascinate most of all. "The best lives are invented, someone said that," remarks Albert Dehousse, the protagonist of Jacques Audiard's smart and provocative "A Self-Made Hero," before blandly adding, "I think it was me."
     Directed and co-written (with Alain Le Henry) by Audiard, an experienced French screenwriter who now directs as well, "A Self-Made Hero" is an acute psychological study of a man who made himself up as he went along, a delicious piece of work that succeeds in making the audience a willing accomplice in the deception. Winner of the best screenplay prize at Cannes, it is as precisely written as it is thought out, and beautifully acted in the bargain.
     For most of the film Dehousse is played by Mathieu Kassovitz (best known as the director of "La Haine"), but when we first meet the character it's as a much older man played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, the subject of a documentary looking into the unique circumstances of his life. (Using these two actors is also something of an inside joke, for they were the stars of Audiard's first film as a director, 1994's excellent but still unreleased "Regarde Les Hommes Tomber.")
     It's the nature of Dehousse's deception that makes him worthy of this documentary. More or less unaffected by World War II, he was able, in the chaotic peacetime months of 1945, to pass himself off as a valued and heroic member of the French Resistance. This concern with the malleability of morality in wartime and after, with how easily the French nation as a whole was able to slough off its history of collaboration, was what attracted Audiard to the Jean-Francois Deniau novel the film is based on.
     Audiard is especially fortunate in the way actor Kassovitz brings the correct combination of earnestness, timidity and bravado to the role of the simultaneously guileless and ruthless Dehousse. Though we may think we'll be put off by the man's dishonesty, there is something ingratiating and amusing about how desperately Dehousse wants to become an insider. A callow youth with surprising reserves of cleverness, able to hide pure calculation under the mask of boyishness, Dehousse is an entertaining master magician who turns his own life into the greatest act of all.
     One of the unstated themes of "A Self-Made Hero" is that though he wasn't aware while it was happening, Dehousse's entire life was a preparation for his supreme deception. He in effect grew into his vocation, picking up tips and techniques from a variety of unrelated sources.
     As a child, growing up in genteel poverty in rural France, young Albert got his first lesson in deception when he realized his own mother has misled him about his late father's past. Already a lover of words and make-believe, he acts out the novels of youthful adventure he reads, and when he meets future wife Yvette (Sandrine Kiberlain), he tells her he's a writer and proves it by copying out passages from the latest book he's read and passing them off as his own.
     However, Dehousse will not invent on the page, but rather with life itself. After a wartime spent as a salesman learning about self-presentation, he runs off to Paris on Liberation Day out of embarrassment at how little he did during the conflict. There he comes under the influence of the Captain (Albert Dupontel), a real Resistance hero who "loved deceit in every form." He tells his young protege that he's at a rare moment in history when anything goes, and advises him, should he try to be false, "to make it all up, to invent everything from A to Z."
     Which is what Dehousse sets out to do. Beginning with easy things, like bluffing his way into Resistance reunions, he soon turns to deception's heavy lifting. "A Self-Made Hero" is especially good at showing the painstaking hard work that goes into making yourself over: the reading, the memorization, the socializing, the willingness to practice lines as conscientiously as any actor.
     The more he does it, the more Dehousse discovers he has a gift for this business, an ability for outfoxing the suspicious, for knowing how to say, "Need I say more?" when saying more would be fatal. He eventually meets a woman (Anouk Grinberg) who is very nearly a match for him, and he finds himself almost turning, like the protagonist of Roberto Rossellini's classic "General Della Rovere," into something like the person he's pretended to be.
     Writer-director Audiard has not only put together a script that works like an intricate clock, he's also collaborated with cinematographer Jean-Marc Fabre ("Moi Ivan, Toi Abraham") to give the film a sense of cinematic style. Among the playful touches he includes are shots of a chamber ensemble playing the film's Alexandre Desplat score. No matter how real I've made it seem, he's saying, never forget that we're making it up here just like that rascal Albert Dehousse.

A Self-Made Hero, 1997. Unrated. Released by Strand Releasing. Director Jacques Audiard. Producer Patrick Godeau. Screenplay by Alain Le Henry and Jacques Audiard, based on the novel by Jean-Francois Deniau. Cinematographer Jean-Marc Fabre. Editor Juliette Welfling. Costumes Caroline De Vivaise. Music Alexandre Desplat. Production design Michel Vandestien. Sets Dominique Douret. Sound Jean-Pierre Duret. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Mathieu Kassovitz as Albert Dehousse. Anouk Grinberg as Servane. Sandrine Kiberlain as Yvette. Albert Dupontel as The Captain. Jean-Louis Trintignant as Albert Dehousse.

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