The Lost Son (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Critics were sharply divided on this film in which Daniel Auteuil plays a down-and-out detective in the true film noir tradition. 

The corny blurb on the publicity material reads like this: "a French detective living alone in London, with a tank full of goldfish and a heart full of bitter memories." The film is much deeper than that would indicate. I think that mis-marketing is partially responsible for the negative reviews. The movie is very different from what we are led to expect. Brother, this ain't the Maltese Falcon. It's more like 8MM.

In the opening credits, we see Auteuil spy on a cheating wife, blackmail her, then give a clean report back to the husband who hired him. We are thus shown neatly and concisely, with no need for voice-over or flashbacks, that he is a man without a moral compass.  Perhaps that has always been true of him. The film remains ambiguous about the incident that drove him from France. In fact, the script leaves open the possibility that he really did something very wrong back there, and it resulted in the death of his family. 

NUDITY REPORT

There is an oh-so-brief of buttocks from Marianne Denicourt

Auteuil stumbles upon some naked female pictures when he is searching an apartment.

At the beginning of the film proper, he gets a sudden break. He is hired for what seems like a sinecure - five hundred bucks a day plus expenses to find the missing scion of a rich family. He plans to milk that for what its worth. As inevitably happens in these film noir stories, the simple missing person case turns into a horror. Up to this point, it's the usual gumshoe movie. 

But in this case, the horror is so profound that it changes the entire film from a detective story to a moral lesson, and it changes the detective. He gets to the point where doesn't care about the case itself, and he forgets all his sleazy scams. On the trail of a missing rich guy, he finally finds something more important in life, something that he feels he has to get involved in.

The rich man is missing because he was killed trying to save a kid from a child sex ring. Auteuil follows the trail into the world of pedophilia and kiddie porn. The children are culled from the streets, in "places where human life has no value or meaning", places unspecified at first, but presumably like Wisconsin and Boca Raton. They are raised and sheltered in day-care centers, ultimately to be sent into the trade, possibly even to be killed in perverted sex acts. (Anything is negotiable. If you want to kill the kids, you pay more.)

There are many horrible sights in the film, but perhaps the most terrifying is one of the most pleasant.  We see the Mexican day-care center where the kids are bathed, cleaned, and fed well, and we hear the children laughing and playing together. The film shows us, without requiring words, that they are being fatted up like Thanksgiving turkeys. The second most horrifying occurs when Auteuil is pretending to be a chicken hawk, and the pimp shows him pictures of his choices. We are shocked by not only the innocence of the boys' faces, but the fact that they are about five years younger than we expected. We realize then, along with Auteuil, that the detective is dealing with deeply disturbed and dangerous men 

It's a painful film to watch, and quite powerful when it chooses to deal with the serious subjects. Like all good hard-boiled screen detectives, Auteuil forgets about the trivial case and finds something which gives meaning to his meaningless life. The adult son he is asked to look for is dead, but he decides to return all the lost sons and daughters who have been pulled into this scheme.

The place where the film falls down is in the clichÚd plot and characters. 

  • Do you think Auteuil is Gallic film noir enough? Get this - he smokes unfiltered cigarettes in the shower. Now THAT'S a true film detective. Even Bogart and Belmondo stopped smoking once in a while, for food ,or sleep, or sex.
  • The plot has a gaping hole in it. Not a hole exactly, but a too-obvious clue. We are not supposed to realize that the guy in charge of the porno ring is actually Auteuil's old buddy from France, who is also the brother-in-law of the missing man, but when Auteuil tracks down the child care center in Mexico, the guy in charge knows about how Auteuil lost his family in Paris. OOPS! Only two conclusions are possible:

1. Perhaps two or three people in the city of London, out of ten million or so, would know that, and he's been hired to investigate one of them by coincidence.

or 

2. There is a connection between the guy in Mexico and the incident in France. The only possible connection is the brother-in-law of the missing man. 

Assuming the screenwriter is not a complete nutcase, #2 is the only sensible conclusion, and that spoils some subsequent moments that were supposed to surprise us.

 

It's not exactly a typical film, but the combination of a chain-smoking hard-boiled detective story with a sociological study of a kiddie sex ring produces a strong impact. Viewed in its entirety, this ultra-serious film is surprisingly effective. Perhaps it's because of the choice of subject matter, and perhaps that's a cheap way to build visceral impact, but I don't think the reasons matter that much if it gets to you.

Needless to say, it is not what you are looking for if you just want to see an old-fashioned Marlowe-Spade detective story. It's really not an entertainment picture at all, by any stretch of the definition. It is a very serious and heavy-handed film about a very serious societal disease.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • 1.85 letterboxed widescreen

  • no meaningful features

Other notes: 
  • many of the accents are difficult to understand, including Auteuil, who has most of the lines.
  • director Chris Menges is better known as a cinematographer. I thought the visuals were quite impressive in many scenes, but you may find that his photographic indulgence sometimes slows a scene down.

The Critics Vote

  • Apollo 52.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.2, Apollo users only 62/100. 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description,  I will score this a C+, but advise you that it intends to horrify you with its candid treatment of the kiddie sex ring, so it isn't a mainstream picture, and it isn't an entertainment picture. 

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