Monday, July 22, 2024

‘Under Paris’ Doesn’t Have The Teeth

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Movies attempting to rip off Steven Spielberg’s Jaws are hardly new. During the 70s it was practically its own subgenre-with the best being William Girdler’s 1976 Grizzly. Heck, the Dutch filmmaker Dick Maas has made multiple movies riffing on Jaws using everything from escaped lions to killer elevators. (The killer elevators he’s done twice!)

And now there’s Xavier Gens’s Under Paris, a movie about a renegade shark that finds its way into the Seine and starts making lunch meat out of Parisians. Credit to the script by Gens, Maud Heywang, and Yannick Dahan, they make Under Paris enough of its own thing that we can’t call it a shameless ripoff. Instead, they use Jaws as a blueprint, borrowing ideas and beats that have now become genre story tropes.

under paris
Sophia (Berenice Bejo) drawn back to Lilith.

We have three disparate characters who will find themselves forced to work together to defeat the evolutionary anomaly. First, we meet Sophia (Berenice Bejo), the oceanographer and shark expert. She’s traumatized because her entire team was killed by a shark, Lillith, the same one who now haunts the Seine.

Then there’s Mika (Lea Leviant) a Queer Greta Thumberg-inspired activist. She and her climate activist organization have tracked Lillith using the homing device Sophia and her team planted on Lillith years ago. Mika and her girlfriend represent the idealists and extremists who make stupid decisions and put everyone’s life in danger.

I’m unsure if Gens is trying to score cheap political points by having Mika be so unreasonable. At one point she organizes a mass protest in the catacombs to try and help Lillith escape Paris before Sophia and the third of the trio, Adil (Nassim Lyes) of the River Patrol, try and kill her. Yet, she ignores Sophia’s warnings that they are invading Lillith’s nest and that she will attack to protect her offspring.

Admittedly the bloodshed that follows is almost worth the baffling character decisions and plot contrivances that led us here. A running theme of Under Paris.

I would venture that Gens and his co-writers aren’t too worried about being accurate or even politically consistent. Under Paris opens with a quote about evolution and then cites the source as “based on” Charles Darwin. A brushstroke that gave me both a laugh and hope for the film’s trashy endeavors.

under paris
Mika (Lea Leviant) who wants to save Lillith and all sharks.

Except there’s a real craftsmanship and beauty to Under Paris. Nicholas Massart frames the scenes in Under Paris with a slick polish, with the underwater scenes reaching a kind of breathtaking beauty. Massart and editor Riwanon Le Beller do a great job working with the effects team and making moments such as when Lillith drags Sophia down to the inky black depths of the ocean visceral and gripping.

Gens ensures that Under Paris never looks cheap or cheesy. The gleam and sophistication of the pacing and storytelling set Under Paris apart from its Sharknado brethren. But there’s the rub. 

Under Paris gets caught up in the logic of what all too slowly unravels into pure hysterical nonsense. Like so many modern exploitation films, Gens and Le Beller don’t understand pacing. The somber tone of the film is too stately for a movie about a killer shark that has evolved into breeding asexually. The actors all play it straight with thar typical French moroseness. Under Paris is too well made to be Eurotrash. Still, it plays it much too safe and much too seriously so that when the more bizarre elements kick in, especially in the last 15 minutes where Gens switches gears into Roland Emmrich territory, it feels like we’ve walked into another movie.

The gravitas Gens and Massart inject into Under Paris undercuts the goofiness of it. It doesn’t necessarily kill the genuinely effective eerie moments, or even puncture the nail-biting sequences. But it does make the dearth of anything happening between those events feel all the more interminable.

Recently Roger Corman, the legendary filmmaker and producer of countless low-budget drive-in exploitation features passed away. Corman never would have allowed for a movie like Under Paris to be so tedious or so long. Though I’ve seen many Corman movies that felt longer than Under Paris

Still, Corman understood what a film needed and wasn’t concerned with the dodgy veneer of respectability. Respectability be damned, it rarely sells tickets. However, Under Paris tries to rise above exploitation and B-movie stature but is shackled by its script.

under paris
Adil (Nassim Lyes) the reluctant leader.

A script that is so by the numbers that when a woman-loving-woman couple is introduced I’m able to correctly surmise that neither of them is making it out alive. Or when a Black woman was introduced I guessed, correctly, she too, would be eventual chum. For a movie so drenched in exploitative tics and tropes, Under Paris tries too hard to be something it isn’t.

Say what you want about Deep Blue Sea, Anaconda, Grizzly, or Sharknado, they aren’t ashamed to be what they are. Gens’s nimble visual touch fumbles at bridging the gap between the visual style he and Massart are trying to craft and the laziness of the script. It doesn’t make Under Paris unwatchable, so much as make it a film sporadically entertaining and effective.

Gens and Massart’s handling of the underwater footage, and the scenes in the bowels of the Paris catacombs border on evocative. They set a mood and an ambiance of something old, eternal, beyond our grasp, that everything happening now is but a blip on the cosmic radar. Yet, they are never able to capitalize on the seeds they sow.

However, the ending to Under Paris is so out of step with the rest of the movie, and yet it’s my favorite thing about the film. The implications are earth-shatteringly nihilistic and refuse to tie anything up in something so banal as a bow. I love the ending with my whole heart.

Gens has the juice but the script, while decent, draws the characters too thinly, for Under Paris to focus so much on them. There’s only so much actors can do if the material isn’t there. Scenes of two lost souls bonding over shared trauma feel hollow and lethargic amid this strange cocktail of competence and restraint. 

I only wish the rest of Under Paris swung for the fences as hard as the final third of the movie did. It’s the kind of ending people will remember and talk about after watching. But sadly, that’s all anyone will remember or talk about.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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