Film Review: Les Cowboys

Inspired by John Ford’s 'The Searchers,' 'Les Cowboys' tells the story of a French father in pursuit of his daughter who has run off with her Muslim boyfriend. It’s a compelling update.
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To judge by the long opening sequence in Les Cowboys, a hot western scene is thriving in France, with at least one annual festival celebrating everything Americana, including cowboys sporting Stetson hats who line-dance the night away to percussive country music. The event and its depiction may even be accurate, but the metaphor is heavy-handed and the satiric title doesn’t help. It’s also misleading. Despite initial impressions, there’s no special pleading on the part of the creative team and in the end the film lends itself to more than one interpretation. Its ambiguity works.

Loosely inspired by John Ford’s The Searchers, a seminal western if ever there was one and starring the mythic John Wayne, Les Cowboys transposes the action to a contemporary world where the Muslim has replaced the Indian. The machismo protagonist remains the same.

The film begins at one of the aforementioned western festivals where let’s-pretend-I’m-a-cowboy Alain (François Damiens) is having a fine old time dancing with his 16-year-old daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth) until she abruptly disappears with her Muslim boyfriend, Ahmed (Mounir Margoum), sending Alain into a tailspin. He is determined to track her down, ultimately catapulting him from Holland to Syria to Yemen.

Spanning 22 years (1994 to the present), Les Cowboys explores his and later his son’s search for Kelly and, more to the point, their respective interactions with and reactions to the Islamic world they encounter.

Alain is convinced Kelly has been abducted, though the family receives a letter from her insisting that she is all right and urging her parents not to try to find her, thus enraging Alain even further. He rails at the police, whom he believes are doing nothing, and at Ahmed’s father, who knows as much as he does. To make matters worse, Kelly has converted to Islamism.

Still, it is 1994 and Islamism does not arouse the kind of feelings it does today. That said, one has to assume—it’s hard not to interpret the film through a post-9/11 lens—that Kelly’s conversion makes her disappearance with Ahmed that much more repellent to Alain and his family.

When Kelly’s mother Nicole (Agathe Dronne) sees a photograph of Ahmed and Kelly’s newborn baby girl, she instinctively loves the infant, is thrilled to be a grandmother, yet unable to repress her pained expression as she hears the child’s Arab name. It’s a fleeting moment and difficult to watch. Nicole doesn’t want to feel what she can’t help feeling.

Writer-director Thomas Bidegain (making an impressive directorial debut) understands the thorny issues surrounding the “us vs. them” sensibility. We’ve come a long way in the 60 years since The Searchers hit the big screen. At the same time, he gives the audience permission to identify with the family who view Muslims as the “other.”

Alain forges ahead through Muslim enclaves in search of his daughter. The poverty and squalor are numbing. The filmmakers present it—with vivid production design by Raphael Harouche—and allow the audience to care or not care. Alain is indifferent.

Admittedly, he is a narcissist and equally disinterested in his daughter’s wishes, not that it’s easy to identify with Kelly either. Whatever Dad’s shortcomings—and by extension, those of his Eurocentric culture—it’s impossible to fathom her attraction to Islamic womanhood. A clue would have been nice.

Either way she is lost to him. An aging Muslim tells Alain, “Your daughter is no longer your daughter.” Ethan Edwards in The Searchers feels the same about his kidnapped niece, who has become so tainted with “otherness” he has no choice short of killing her.  Alain’s fury is spiraling out of control too, but instead of setting out to destroy Kelly, he self-destructs in a car accident. It’s a contemporary spin, a tad convenient, but not implausible.

Alain is now gone and Kelly’s younger brother, Kid (Finnegan Oldfield)—serving as a contrast to his father in temperament and viewpoint—continues the search, altering the story’s tone and vision. He’s not as compelling as Alain. But perhaps that’s the price for loss of machismo. Alain is John Wayne several steps removed. It’s a connection, however oblique.

Kid has no tie to the archetype, short of his distance from it. He is passive, egoless and unlike Dad simply wants to know what happened to Kelly. He’s also sensitive to the world around him. He silently watches the Twin Towers come down on a television screen, his expression blank. Arguably, he views Kelly’s personal story as a snippet in a larger global narrative. His relationship with Muslims is not confrontational and he smokes dope with tribal chieftains in Pakistan (shades of the peace pipe shared among cowboys and Indians in any number of westerns).

Along the way, Kid joins forces with a totally amoral, apolitical bounty hunter (delightfully played by a round and bearded John C. Reilly), who is yet another western prototype and also a profoundly modern character. Predictably, violence ensues.

There are parallels throughout: Alain and Kid, but also Kelly and Ahmed’s new wife, Shazhana (Ellora Torchia). It’s difficult not to compare the two women. There’s the middle-class European who chooses Islamism and there’s the Pakistani native who is forced to flee her country and adapt to Western ways. One determines her life, the other doesn’t. Still, it’s obvious who’s better off. Choice may be overrated if it’s the wrong choice. Some viewers might dispute that and find the movie’s final section offensively Eurocentric. This film opens up lively debate.

Les Cowboys is not flawless. The second half drags and the elliptical storytelling is a bit off-putting. In one scene, the characters are in a particular locale. In scene two, a year or more has passed and the same characters are now in another country and mention in passing they’ve traveled through several others.

But in the end, the film is successful and thought-provoking. The Western myth has evolved, but is still thriving. What a fitting tribute to the two Johns.

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