The full synopsis of Géla Babluani's 13 (Tzameti) is not quite a secret in the same way as those of a lot of modern thrillers. The end is not a surprise, nor is it a twist, but for me to give it away would certainly ruin one of the film's greatest elements, which is its suspenseful first act. Sadly, the film's trailer, official plot outline and other critics are giving it away, and if you haven't already happened upon the spoilers, it may be difficult to avoid them. Just be aware that going in with knowledge of what the second act entails could make you bored for awhile.
The film opens with 22-year-old Sébastian (played by Géla's brother, Georges Babluani) starting a new roofing job, one which promises a good sum of money to help him support his poor family. After a few days of work, though, he begins to doubt whether he will be receiving his advance, let alone his total amount. Then one day Sébastian overhears his client, Godon (Philippe Passon), discuss a lucrative job he's about to undertake. The assignment, details of which Godon doesn't reveal, is hush-hush enough that its instructions are to be only partially delivered to him via post. When the envelope arrives it contains only a train ticket and a prepaid hotel bill.
Immediately after receiving the envelope, Godon overdoses on morphine and dies. Realizing that he will now be stiffed on the roofing bill, Sébastian swipes the envelope and embarks on the assignment in Godon's place. The train ticket takes him to the prepaid room, where he is then given further instructions involving a locker filled with another train ticket and a card with the number 13 on it. Meanwhile, unbeknown to him, Sébastian is being trailed by the police.
This slow build-up takes up a good percentage of the film, and it is an exciting, mysterious lead in the vein of Hitchcock's wrong-man formula. Only in this scenario, the wrong man is deliberately such. Because Sébastian is unaware of what he's getting into, his decision is not the brightest, yet his combined desperation and curiosity are plausible motivators. And since the film never gives us more information than he's given, we are invited to share in at least the curiosity to follow along with him.
Unlike Hitchcock's films, which primarily are about the journey rather than the destination, 13 (Tzameti) is about both. Once Sébastian arrives at the top-secret location and begins his "assignment," the film picks up the pace and the action, but despite the magnitude of its events, the second act is not of more importance than the first; it is only more thrilling. Where initially 13 (Tzameti) grips our inquiring minds, here it tightly presses our hearts -- physically, not emotionally; for the latter kind of heart-handling, there is act number three.
The "assignment" that Sébastian gets mixed up in is a violent one, but the violence is not too graphic, despite what some reviews are saying. Black and white cinematography can only be so stirring in its depiction of blood, and anyway, Babluani (the director) is never exploitive in his attention to details. Any impression that 13 (Tzameti) is a violent movie is dependent on the viewer, and because Babluani (the director) does such a great job of keeping the bloodshed simple and down to a minimum, if not completely non-existent, concerning himself instead with the shock of the events themselves, that impression is likely the product of the viewer's imagination.
13 (Tzameti) is first and foremost a film reliant on style and a clever idea, and its substance is entirely limited to what is on screen. At one point a character explains to another that the events should be thought of philosophically, and afterward I attempted to think of the film on such terms, without success. Surely I could really dig and find some deeper meaning to it, but I understand that even Hitchcock's films were likewise literal entertainments. And as a director of suspense, Babluani's talent makes him potentially Hitch's best successor yet.
Though, like M. Night Shyamalan, who is another would-be master of suspense, Babluani could use a bit of work in the writing department. The script for 13 (Tzameti) is never gimmicky or silly like those written by Shyamalan, but it is nearly as obvious in its being developed out of one central contrivance rather than out of its characters. It's as though the events don't happen to Sebastian as much as he happens to the events.
In the role of Sébastian, Babluani (the actor) delivers a terrific performance using mostly his eyes. Resembling a lanky, demented version of James Franco, he is also a fairly good-looking protagonist among some of the most interesting character actors of late (European films are always best for distinct faces), and yet his features are odd enough that he could sort of fit in with the company he winds up in, too.
13 (Tzameti), which won this year's grand jury prize for dramatic world cinema at Sundance, is a film that feels like it's been thrown into the wash with some of that festival's most compelling offerings of American and European cinemas. It is stained with everything from modern exploitation horror to neo noir, inclusive of all that these genres evoke, and it perfectly, at different times, meets with the standards of general audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
And yet there is something wholly underwhelming about the film. Sure I was immersed in the intrigue and the astonishingly immoral scenario, but in the end my primary reaction was: okay, so nobody can enter that narrative territory again (except, of course, in the Hollywood remake, which is currently being planned with Babluani repeating himself as director), let's check it off the list of original ideas left in the world, and move on. And so, in retrospect, the film does feel a bit empty.
I blame the dispiriting third act, which, even as it fulfills the needs of the story, is effective in ruining our involvement with Sébastian. He (and the film) seems to merely go through the motions, without expressing many emotions, until the screen fades to black. I know, before I mentioned that the emotional heart-handling is left for the third act, and it is, but that doesn't mean the film does a good job of exhibiting or provoking the feelings we expect. Let me just say that something important does happen in the last few minutes, and it manages to have no dramatic impact, even though it should. By finishing such an exhilarating film with a climax that drags and then ends with a whimper, Babluani (the director) does a great disservice to both his character and his audience.
Of course, the film's distributor, Palm Pictures, and my colleagues in film criticism are doing the greater disservice in not hiding the big event in 13 (Tzameti). In a cinematic sense, at least the critics should be aware of their wrongdoing, since the entire first third of the film conceals Sébastian's destination. If Babluani (the director) wanted us to know it, he would have told us in the beginning, and then he would have been more hard-pressed to get to it quickly, since his audience would be far more impatient with the road leading up to it, and the film would barely fill an hour's time. For any viewer that doesn't get to experience and appreciate the first act as is intended to be, the only thing left, since the finale is such a disappointment, is the second act. And as great as that act is, it isn't enough to outshine two thirds that aren't very interesting. If 13 (Tzameti) did leave me with one thing, it is a justification of my going into films knowing as little about them as possible.
For another take on 13 (Tzameti), see Kim Voynar's review of the film from Sundance.