We first reviewed the writing and directing work of self-taught award-winning filmmaker Mike Cuenca with last year’s music ensemble drama I’ll Be Around. We enjoyed that eclectic-eccentric character study, so seeing Cuenca’s name on the one-sheet advanced his latest film to the top of the review stacks. Equally intriguing: Cuenca shot the film in one whirlwind week during the height of the Winter 2020 COVID lockdowns.
If the title’s not giving it away, Mike Cuenca’s taken his same abilities at adeptly interweaving plots and characters — only in the context of a film noir, with the proceedings less James M. Cain commercial (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity) and more non-mainstream David Lynch (think Lost Highway). Upping the ante: Cuenca’s drafted the pandemic into the plot, which serves as the catalyst (in lieu of greed or sexual weakness) to a surrealist nightmare. While it plays, at first, as a disconnected anthology about unrelated people making due during the pandemic with a weak through line, it all comes together in a plot that’s nicely psuedo-Giallo’d along the way. While non-linear — and we know how that rubs the wrong way with some viewers — give it time: the dots connect.
What are the “dots” as it were?
A mysterious woman in the deserts surrounded by a cult-masked group. There’s two gun-toting thugs executing a kidnapping plot. A mysterious woman makes a phone call that sexually intrigues and frightens a man at once. A rare comic book is at stake. There’s a meeting in a city park with a person that may be “love,” but more wishful-illusion than reality.
For a film shot-on-the-fly with no budget under pandemic restrictions: just wow. This film is twisty-scripted, nicely shot, Giallo-expertly lit, and the acting — which I’ll assume was done sans paychecks by the cast for the love of the craft with the need to create “something” to quell the lockdown madness — is well-concentrated, with everyone on-point with their characters.
Like a Dirty French Novel is everything you don’t expect to see in a streaming indie flick — and we love the film for it. The caveat is that I enjoy non-linear films: again, they are not for everyone. Truth be told: If not for Mike Cuenca impressing me with I’ll Be Around last year, I might have looked this one over and reviewed something else because, not all filmmakers can pull off multi-character plots and non-linear tales. Mike Cuenca, can.
If this is what he can do on the fly sans a budget, I look forward to what Mike Cuenca will do with a budget — possibly a studio shingle behind him — in a post-pandemic world.
Mike Cuenca is a writer-director to keep an eye on. He’s two-for-two in my review books.
Disclaimer: We were provided a screener copy of this film from the production’s PR firm. That has no bearing on our review.