Three youths – Henri (Lucas Belvaux), Anne (Ann-Gisel Glass), and Yvan (Wadeck Stanczak) – attempt to burgle a music shop, only to accidentally kill its owner in a panic. Their theft was to find musical instruments to sustain their struggling post-punk band, but the guilt of their crime heralds the band’s self-destruction.
Disorder marks the feature debut of French writer/director Olivier Assayas, the acclaimed filmmaker whose more recent works The Clouds of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper, and Carlos have been met with wide acclaim and critical praise. Disorder, released in 1986 after a string of short films, does not come close to matching the quality of Assayas’ later work. It does showcase the director at his most raw and unformed, and hints at a superior talent already gestating.
A young indie rock band is a perfect framework for the kind of intense, personal drama that Assayas presents. They are on the verge of success, with a record deal in the offing, but interpersonal conflicts and a circle of cheating relationships are bringing its members to blows. Yvan and Henri are competing for Anne’s affections, while Yvan is also drawn towards photographer Cora (Corinne Dacla). Drummer Xavier (Remi Martin) is one day from compulsory military service, and finds his girlfriend Cecile (Juliette Mailhe) cheating on him with bandmate Gabriel (Simon de la Brosse). It is an emotional powderkeg, with an unintended murder providing the proverbial straw to break the camel’s back.
In truth the film does not need it. Disorder works best when it delivers intimate moments of character and conflict, and the shoehorning-in of a murder subplot contributes little to the film’s stronger moments. It feels vividly like the work of a fresh filmmaker: a writer who cannot quite trust in his own work and feels forced to add distracting sensationalism to compensate. Further plot developments only enhance this feeling. A few moments feel as if they are ripped from a student film. As it stands Yvan, Henri and Anne’s collective guilt and fear of discovery are too large for the story being told. It would overwhelm the rest of the film if were not so weakly expressed throughout.
When it is good, it is great – and is enhanced frequently by some strong performances among the cast, notably Lucas Belvaux and Ann-Gisel Glass’s romance in crisis and Corinne Dacla’s emotive turn as Cora. There is a rising mistrust throughout the piece, bordering on paranoia.
Gabriel Yared’s classical, melodramatic score contrasts wildly with the mid-1980s sounds of the central pop group. Both work well independently, and both work well in contrast. It adds valuable authenticity. In terms of visuals, Assayas draws some solid atmosphere out of his location shoots and develops a valuable sense of place.
Disorder is rich in potential, and broadly enjoyable, but that potential is not met and one grows to slightly resent the film for not being as good as Assayas’ more famous works. In the end, a question does bear raising: while the film is entertaining enough, would anybody watch it today were it not for the future pedigree of its director?