There's a great line- fittingly, about a great line - in the middle of Our Heroes Died Tonight: "You don't get it? I don't either. But that's okay; the point is to take, not to get." It sums up the experience of watching a lot of the films at Fantastic Fest, and this film in particular, a joy to take in, but a difficult one to "get" with a simple one-line description. But to call Our Heroes Died Tonight "French wrestling noir", as the film's publicity materials do, is to sell short a surprisingly complex and human film. Refusing categorization, Our Heroes Died Tonight grapples with your expectations like a slippery, burly luchador, evading holds and casting the viewer as the heel for trying to force a preconceived identity onto the film.
An opening title card tells us that in the early 1960s, professional wrestling in France was at the height of its popularity. The start of the film finds Victor (Denis Ménochet), a bruiser recently returned home from the French Foreign Legion, rudderless and without a job. His pal Simon (Jean-Pierre Martins) is making a living as The Specter, a masked wrestler who happens to be in need of an adversary. Simon's unsavory bosses groom Victor into The Butcher of Belleville, and the two set about making their benefactors loads of francs.
But before long the job is doing a number on both men. Adulation without recognition rankles their egos. Surrendering their identities to literal black and white avatars of good and evil isn't helping their extant existential concerns. And beating the holy hell out of each other nightly (while a retired wrestler promotes his upcoming book on TV by calling wrestling fake) is cracking the foundation of Simon and Victor's friendship. In a misguided attempt to restore balance and sanity, the men switch roles without telling their bosses, setting off a messy chain reaction in which the film shifts from a kitchen-sink drama that happens to be about masked wrestlers into the noir experience promised by the film's promotional department.
The men are indeed two tidy film noir archetypes. Simon is a world-weary, chain-smoking stoic who knows when to keep his mouth shut. And Victor is the kind of punchy lug that would have wandered (and doomed) a caper in a 1940s crime film. When the movie eventually deposits them into their third-act nightmare, it does so brilliantly: it's not so much a tonal shift, but more as if the noir swirls up around the characters, quickly but stealthily, trapping them before they even realize it. But for the first hour, what director David Perrault does with these two rich characters is more along the lines of a continuum that includes Mean Streets, Mikey and Nicky, and even Sean Penn's The Indian Runner as it explores the self-destructive impulse behind the "anything for a friend" ethos.
The actors are impeccable, and manage to find the universal human emotion within the bizarre backdrop. The film's black-and-white cinematography is clean, sharp and beautiful, and never descends into campy homage. The wrestling matches are brutal, subtly shifting from choreographed rehearsals to two men out for blood. The masked wrestler milieu and noir callbacks may put this movie in Fantastic Fest's sweet spot, but at its heart Our Heroes Died Tonight is a grounded contemplation of the complex relationship between brothers - the shared love, obligation, and resentment that can be as powerful and dangerous as any out-of-control love affair.