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In an un-named city, Gregori (Vincent Cassel) roams the streets salvaging debris and trash – the human kind too. We see him visiting a hospital and charming his way to the bedside of a new mother who’s clearly alone in the world. Jump forward a decade and Gregori has created a whole community out of the scraps he’s collected: children play while their mothers watch and clean house in a strange, sealed off corner of the city (with it’s courtyard and high walls, it feels a little like an abandoned zoo enclosure). Gregori is father and teacher to the children, with 11-year-old Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel) the oldest and sharpest pupil. But it gradually becomes clear that while Gregori has rescued these people from the world outside, he might also be someone they need rescuing from.
This low-key slow-burn film (made by Australian writer-director Ariel Kleiman, who is definitely a name to watch) gets a lot of mileage out of Cassel’s slightly too-charming performance and the gradual revelation of the sinister undertones to his child-friendly community. But a slow-burn has to catch fire eventually and this never really takes hold. Part of the problem is that the film wavers between being the story of what Gregori is up to and being the story of Alexander’s growing estrangement from Gregori; clearly the idea is that we’ll come to fear for the boy once we realise just how far the man is willing to go, but both sides of the story are so (purposely) understated the tension required to make this more than just a well-crafted exercise in style never materialises. It doesn’t help that one major subplot ends ambiguously when there’s only one (of two) possible outcomes that create drama; why leave a question unanswered when the mystery makes your film less interesting?