Black Flies Review
One of the rewards of the excruciatingly exhaustive press life at Cannes (journalists have to book tickets for screenings daily at 7am) is going into a film with limited expectations and coming out wowed. This was the case with Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Black Flies, much of which takes place at night so it was perhaps fitting that the screening ended after 1am. My limited expectations were due in part to my unfamiliarity with Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s work and in part to my general disinterest in American cinema’s produce. But I have been duly castigated for my cinematic prejudices: the first French film in competition, Le Retour, was paltry, while the first American contender stands a good chance of the best actor(s) award, or maybe even the best director. Having one’s expectations pleasantly defied is one of the main thrills of attending Cannes.
Black Flies follows the frenetic work-life imbalance of two Fire Department of New York City paramedics, a newcomer from Colorado called Ollie Cross (Tye Sheridan) and seasoned senior paramedic Gene Rutkovsky (Sean Penn) by documenting the destructive impact of this most gruelling of jobs on their psyches and their personal lives.
Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire is French and maybe his outsider perspective allows Black Flies its critical gaze on New York City as a tenebrous third-world megapolis. While the premise of juxtaposing an idealistic rookie and a jaded old dog is not necessarily original, Black Flies is impactful by the force of its at times frenzied documentary quality – the film’s closing dedication cites the high rate of burn out and suicide among New York’s so called first-responders, this egregious American euphemistic catchall for the overworked underpaid emergency personnel who have the gruesome task of keeping the most marginalised barely alive. This is a place where ambulances are staffed by fire department paramedic personnel who are cruelly obliged to double as drivers, law enforcers, social workers, counselors, doctors – heaven forbid free access to actual professional medical staff…
The sincere, if at times melodramatic, central performances are well served by the dreary authenticity of a string of supporting characters. These are New York City’s most down and out, an ugly tableau of drunks, freaks, elderly junkies, birthing junkies, drug dealers, wife beaters, immigrants working in slaughterhouses, lunatics, gangs and so it goes on…In this at first glance incongruous conveyor belt of misery lies the gut-wrenching force of Black Flies. Oh, and a generous splatter of blood, brains, some joyless stress-relief fucking, and some tears.
A lot of America’s “greatness” is embodied in the opening sequence – a black male gunshot victim, tattooed and presumably drug-dealing, dies on the way to hospital. The hectic pace and jittery camera work will mark out most of the emergency interventions, as will the grating siren-heavy sound design. The perspective is mostly that of Cross, and as the film progresses the audience is increasingly led into his deteriorating psyche, his overstressed sensory world symbolised by the black flies of the title. Ironically, however, Cross and Rut are more socially isolated than a lot of the immigrants and locals they attend. They have no social life or friends to speak of, apart from an ex-wife and a current not-exactly girlfriend. On the other had most of the black drug-dealers, Latin gangs, and Asian immigrants are depicted as multitudes, frequently hostile to the two lonely paramedics. Predictably, Cross and Rut strike up an unspoken but heartfelt friendship.
“We decide who lives, who cares if drug dealers die”, asseverates Michael Pitt’s toxic character, a bullying fellow paramedic with violent tendencies. Unexpectedly, it is Sean Penn as kind-hearted, worn-out “Rut” who takes playing god into his own hands and propels the drama towards its depressing crescendo. One senses something bad is going to happen to either Cross or Rut, but Sauvaire still manages to catch the audience by surprise with the true-to-life goriness of it. Indeed, Sauvaire does not shy away from some of the ugliest aspects of working with the dregs of the American dream – most of the paramedics’ “customers” reward them with barrages of verbal vulgarity and physical threat.
Only towards the end does Sauvaire take some pity on his doleful hero and offer a kind word of gratitude from a mother whose child he has risked his life saving. While the film ends on a slimly hopeful note, we know, as does young Cross, that the system of band-aiding this never-ending procession of misery is hopelessly broken.