The Noise of Engines

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At the Raindance film festival, London, UK, 27 October–6 November 2021

French-Canadian film-maker Philippe Grégoire’s debut feature The Noise of Engines (Le bruit des moteurs) starts off with various shots of cars donutting away in rubber-burning circles, going nowhere, but fast. It’s a metaphor, of sorts, for a story about a young man who seems to be going nowhere, but slowly. Perhaps the contrast is a deadpan joke. There is a lot of deadpan joking going on here.

The story is a lift from Grégoire’s own life. He worked part-time for the Canadian customs force to finance his way through college and he comes from a small town near the border with the US, as does his hero, Alexandre (Robert Naylor), a weapons instructor for the customs who is sent home on gardening leave after a sexual dalliance with one of his instructees ends in her having a life-threatening asthma attack.

At home, where his mother seems far from delighted to see him, he re-acquaints himself with the family race track she now runs alone, and out of the blue is accused by the police of sexual inappropriateness once again – someone has been making pornographic drawings and posting them on the door of the local church. They all feature Alexandre prominently. Not me, says Alexandre. And, possibly in a redemptive direction, he strikes up a relationship with Icelandic race fan and car nut Aðalbjörg, the actress Tanya Björk being an appropriate choice because Aðalbjörg (name surely chosen for maximum Icelandicness) is an odd Björk-like mix of naivety and assertiveness who inserts herself into Alexandre’s life and looks like she wants to be his girlfriend.

Icelandic arrival Aðalbjörg

All of this done with barely an emotion registering, no raised voices, the camera’s shooting style flat and documentary-like, as if to suggest that what we’re watching is normal everyday stuff, when all the time what we’re seeing is coming with a large side order of the surreal. The films of Quentin Dupieux (see Rubber or Deerskin) operate in a similarly WTF deadpan way, though the parallels with Franz Kafka’s The Trial are also obvious – a man accused of something he constantly denies, the law on his back, women as redemptive, women as trouble – and in Alexandre we have the Kafka-esque hero, the “who me?” innocent through whose eyes everything is filtered.

Robert Naylor’s performance walks a tightrope and he manages to keep it deadpan without ever slipping into the zombie realm. There are still nuances. And he’s playing a familiar role with original touches – the lad who comes home only to find that the town has become smaller while he’s been away, and he’s an outsider even on his own patch.

Alexandre’s backstory is told at one point, how he became quite good at being a customs guy, even though he had no special aptitude for the role and in fact working for the government went against his principles. Maybe Alexandre is telling the truth, and a lack of emotional engagement makes for a more effective customs agent, or maybe he’s kidding himself about the true nature of his personality. Kafka again.

It’s a low budget film, and while it’s frustrating (deliberately so) that Alexandre’s guilt or innocence stays unresolved it’s hard to imagine The Noise of Engines being any more effective with more money spent on it. Grégoire peppers his dead-flat-take-it-or-leave-it shooting style with exclamation marks here and there – the donutting cars, a repeated staccato motif of a key turning in the ignition, evocations of nightmares – suggesting there might be more of Guy Ritchie in this director than he wants to let on.

The lack of closure (or even of commencement, you could argue) makes this an opaque film to some extent, but it’s an idiosyncratically opaque film and that makes Grégoire someone worth keeping an eye on.

© Steve Morrissey 2021

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