For a biopic about a jazz musician whose music and personality had the power to set hearts afire and get toes tapping, Django plays as a disappointingly staid and conventional affair. Certainly, Étienne Comar’s film about guitarist Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) isn’t reinventing any wheels aesthetically. As storytelling, the film falls into that numbing one-thing-after-another rhythm that dooms many biopics to by-the-numbers dullness. And Comar—making his directing debut here after many years as a producer and co-screenwriter of films like Of Gods and Men and My King—gives his film a cautious prestige-movie sheen that belies the roiling passions that Reinhardt consistently expressed on his guitar even with his two disabled fingers.
Even more unfortunate than the film’s overly respectable surface, however, is its simplistic, near-hagiographic view of Reinhardt. At the core of Django is a vision of the man as a Rick Blaine-like figure: staunchly apolitical until the world forces him to take a stand. For the most part, the Germans in Nazi-occupied France insulated him from the harsher violence of WWII, permitting him to perform his music to loving audiences in the country even as they forbade his kind of supposedly decadent “negro music” elsewhere and rounded up his fellow gypsies for mass extermination. Only when the war hits home—whether through witnessing gypsies’ lives being threatened, or finding himself forced to compromise his art in order to satisfy the artistic desires of Nazi higher-ups—does he finally reach the limit of his political cowardice.
One might think that this would make for a refreshingly nuanced take on Reinhardt, one that risks putting him in an unflattering light for diddling while the rest of his country burned. Right off the bat, though, Comar’s view of the musician feels like just another great-artist cliché: indubitably brilliant but wildly eccentric, with Reinhardt first seen running late for a concert on account of drunkenness and a seemingly random obsession with fishing. But even the thorniest aspects of Reinhardt’s personal life are treated with kid gloves, seemingly excused just because he’s such a terrific musician—and not just his me-first attitude toward the atrocities being committed around him, but also the tryst he carries on with (the apparently invented) Louise de Klerk (Cécile de France) despite having a wife, Naguine (Bea Palya).
Reinhardt’s exemplary musical talent is a point that’s hammered home repeatedly throughout the film, and in ways that reduce him from human being to one-dimensional idol. Louise justifies her affection for Reinhardt by comparing him to her previous husband, a man with a nihilistic view of the world who killed himself just after they’d gotten engaged; Reinhardt offered a stark contrast to that by exuding an appealing thirst for life that’s embodied in his music-making. And throughout scenes of Reinhardt performing for live audiences (with the music re-recorded for the film’s soundtrack by the Rosenberg Trio), Comar frequently cuts to ecstatic audience reactions, as if signaling to us how we’re supposed to feel about the music being played.
Perhaps the film’s most crucial shortcoming, though, lies in its failure to illuminate both the inner life of its subject and his artistic genius. Those with only a superficial familiarity with Reinhardt may go into the film expecting to understand what made his music so great and leave the theater still wondering. Reinhardt’s music has been so thoroughly absorbed into popular culture by now that it might be difficult for anyone to evoke what exactly made his gypsy-jazz style seem so blazingly fresh at the time, but Comar doesn’t even seem aware that such a challenge exists.
Worse, though, Reinhardt himself comes off as a psychological blank, with Comar so invested in dramatizing the events of his screenplay that we never get a sense of what makes this artist tick. The Django Reinhardt depicted in Django seems so emotionally remote from us that his arc from selfish political indifference to fiery engagement never once comes to convincing life.
Berlinale runs from February 9—17.