"There's a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out, but I'm too tough for him. I say, stay in there, I'm not going to let anybody see you."
So go the opening lines to Charles Bukowski's poem “Bluebird”, which almost certainly serves as the inspiration for the otherwise inexplicable title to Jérémie Guez's feature directorial debut, A Bluebird In My Heart. Based on Dannie M. Martin's novel The Dishwasher, Guez delivers a quiet, stripped down, post-Refn Eurocrime entry that's capably crafted, yet never does anything to really elevate itself above that rather pedestrian wavelength. Despite uniformly solid performances, and Dimitri Karakatsanis' (Small Gods) rather striking cinematography - which captures working class French dawns with an almost kaleidoscopic haze of chilly, early morning shades - nothing about Guez's direction really stands out, as he seems content to simply let this rather rote story hit every one of its predictable beats, as if operating off a pulp blueprint that’s been used a thousand times before.
Danny (Roland Møller) just got out of jail. After checking into a motel run by Laurence (Veerle Baetens), and haunted by her bratty, weed-smoking daughter Clara (Lola Le Lann), he's fitted for an ankle bracelet, and given a strict curfew. Any sort of violation will result in an automatic trip back to the clink, and Danny wants no part of that incarcerated life any longer. The ex-con agrees to help remodel parts of the business for Laurence in exchange for a break on the rent, while obtaining a job at a local Chinese restaurant, scrubbing pots and pans in the back. Before long, both are whipped into shape, as it's clear that Danny is all about rehabilitation. These spaces become stand-ins for his own life, the pieces of which he's picking out of a rubbish pile and shining until they seem presentable to people like Nadia (Lubna Azabal), a hostess who’s instantly wary of Danny once she discovers his criminal past.
Perhaps this glaringly obvious (and somewhat clunky) metaphor is the perfect example for what exactly is wrong with A Bluebird In My Heart: it all feels so thuddingly elementary, yet is executed with a vague artiness that almost masks the rudimentary storytelling. Of course, Danny befriends the owner's wayward daughter, who's been enjoying a weird, creepy relationship with a local drug dealer. Of course, the drug dealer ends up assaulting her, leading Danny down a vengeful, protective path that could very well end up damning him to worse than an existence behind bars. The bond between the ex-con and his new surrogate daughter - because again, of course her own father is in prison and refuses to see her - is represented by another juvenile bit of symbolism (a stray dog they often encounter who refuses to let Clara pet it). Like Danny, the dog has its own feathered icon of hope buried away deep in its soul, and the sexed up moppet isn't going to quit until he lets her see it.
All that said, A Bluebird In My Heart is insanely watchable, mostly due to the overall soundness of its visual compositions and performances. Add in an ethereal ambient guitar soundtrack from Séverin Favriau, and Guez's movie can almost trick you into thinking it may be operating on a higher level than it actually is. Thankfully, as soon as you start giving the picture too much credit, Guez tosses in a strangely unearned emotional beat that the movie closes on, as if willfully attempting to alert the viewer to the steadily adequate drone it establishes from the opening frames. It's a real pity, because any sort of narrative risk or ostentatious stylistic tic could've made it easy to forgive this paint-by-numbers approach to pulp storytelling. Instead, Jérémie Guez seems fine to just turn in a savagely decent work that you'll forget you even watched a few hours after the closing credits roll.
A Bluebird in My Heart will continue to screen at SXSW Sunday, March 11th, at the Alamo Lamar (7:45 PM), and Friday, March 16th, at the Alamo Ritz (2:00 PM).