In a rural French town, twenty-something Teddy is scratched by an unknown beast and starts to undergo frightening changes.
A worried young man lies in a chest freezer, trying to cool down, covered in plastic packages of frozen cucumber. Hunters in orange high-vis vests emerge from a forest at dusk, one at a time, like cautious animals. In a house, a ritual begins and red and white candles fill the screen with flickering light.
These are just some of the wonderfully striking images in Teddy, the second feature from writer-director brothers Ludovic and Zoran Boukerhma. Their movie, a Cannes selection last year, is almost worth seeing for the imagery alone, but it’s so much more as well; a small-scale, perfectly paced werewolf tale with a wicked sense of humour that doesn’t extinguish its fundamental sadness, nor hide its deadly serious sociopolitical undertones.
The story is simple, occasionally even predictable, but for most of the time, Teddy’s delight lies in its execution.
In the south of France, an old woman watches TV as the power goes out. She leaves the house to fix it and, a few moments later, a splatter of blood hits the window. Cut to a war-memorial ceremony (a beautifully observed exercise in small-town pomposity), where we meet Teddy (Anthony Bajon), a young man in his late-teens or early-twenties, standing apart from the crowd. He laughs at an out-of-tune rendition of “La Marseillaise” by Benjamin (Guillaume Mattera), argues with some local officials, and soon after seems more interested in an incident on a local hillside where a dozen sheep have been killed. Could it have been a wolf?
Before long Teddy will find out, when he ventures into the woods behind the house he shares with his uncle and aunt, trying to find the animal. It’s not clear to him exactly what happens there, but it’s clear enough to us in the audience once Teddy starts to crave head-cheese for breakfast rather than his usual cereal, or when he declares “I feel good, I feel awesome” despite having woken up naked and bloody the morning after a full moon…
The Boukhermas tell their tale quickly, often with brief scenes, and even while Teddy’s life is falling apart the film itself is completely under control; their style is slightly detached, amused though not unsympathetic. Bright, strongly varied colours contrast with the progressively darker storyline and the rather drab lives of its characters. Bodily mechanics (hair, a tooth, sex, increasing amounts of blood) are dealt with precisely rather than passionately
And even some of the most intimate moments—like Teddy’s pillow talk with his girlfriend Rebecca (Christine Gautier), or Teddy privately rehearsing a speech to her classmates before a party which will go horribly wrong, or Teddy’s uncle Pépin (Ludovic Torrent) miming a croquemitaine (bogeyman) to the local police chief (Jean-Michael Ricart)—are notable more as master classes in cinematic timing than as insights into character.
Teddy could, then, be an impersonal film… but it isn’t, largely because of the consistently strong performances. Bajon, hardly absent from the screen (and nearly always wearing what seems to be the same T-shirt), carries much of it on his shoulders and crafts a character who’s entirely believable—if slightly opaque to the very end—as well as occasionally surprising. He’s a grumpy lad who doesn’t really get on with anyone other than Rebecca, and while his attachment to her seems serious, it may be more an ambition to conform than real affection. Bajon’s expressive face occasionally reveals the insecurity that must lie underneath Teddy’s usually resolute demeanour.
Gauthier—who also appeared in the Boukherma brothers’ werewolf short La Naissance du Monstre (2018)—is convincing in the girlfriend role too, as is writer-director-actor Noémie Lvovsky playing Teddy’s employer, the dreadful Ghislaine. She runs a shiatsu parlour (though Teddy admits he’d rather work in fast-food than as a masseur), and her superficial New Agey concern for everyone’s wellbeing conceals a demanding woman, while her coquettish flirtations with Teddy are completely self-serving.
Just as fine are two newcomers to the screen, amateurs from the town of Céret in Pyrénées-Orientales. Torrent’s Pépin (gay, alcoholic, and mentally ill, at least if we’re to believe what other characters say) is a fascinating combination of strength and submissiveness, while Ricart has the police chief just right, aided by a magnificently curlicued moustache.
Perhaps it’s true that a few minor characters like this police chief aren’t quite credible, the film’s wry knowingness pushing them toward parody. This self-consciousness extends to some of the humour as well (like when Rebecca says Teddy hasn’t changed, a meta-absurdity in a movie entirely about his changing), and to filmic references: Teddy’s humiliation at a party inevitably recalls Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), blood swirling down a plughole is an obvious homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), and the whole thing has a strong whiff of John Fawcett’s Ginger Snaps (2000).
But it’s not as overtly comedic as the latter film, and ultimately that’s another of Teddy’s strengths. Even if it seems for a long time to be rather slight if terrifically well-done, but with not much new to say, Teddy eventually shocks with a bloody climax that casts a new light on everything that’s gone before. By the time the credits roll we see the titular character’s outsider status as tragic and even dangerous rather than amusing; thoughts of school shootings won’t be far away.
As Zoran Boukherma has said, his tongue probably only partly in his cheek, “when you grow up being excluded on the margins of society, a feeling of anger can arise and manifest itself in many different forms. Radicalisation is one of these, for example. Becoming a werewolf is another.”
Teen Wolf (1985) this certainly ain’t, then! Teddy is an accomplished and original addition to the genre, a film that by its conclusion offers something genuinely different to howl about.
FRANCE | 2020 | 88 MINUTES | 1.66:1 | COLOUR | FRENCH
writers & directors: Ludovic Boukherma & Zoran Boukherma.
starring: Anthony Bajon, Christine Gautier & Ludovic Torrent.