Against the depressing backdrop of a French cinema determined to be as glossy and brain-dead as Hollywood, 13 (Tzameti), the 2006 first feature by young French-educated Georgian director Gela Babluani, still stands out two years later as one of the most exciting lo-fi black and white Gallic debuts since Luc Besson’s Le dernier combat.
In a small town on the French Atlantic coast, Sébastien, a struggling young Georgian roofer (played by Babluani’s brother Georges), begins work on a house belonging to a shady, ageing drug addict by the name of Godon. When Sébastien’s engagement abruptly comes to an end without hope of payment, he steals a letter addressed to his former employer, which contains instructions regarding a mysterious and possibly dangerous money-making scheme. Recklessly impersonating Godon, Sébastien follows the instructions and arrives at an isolated mansion outside Paris. There he finds that he is to be a player in a deadly game of Russian roulette in which men bet on one another’s lives. Unable to back out, Sébastien is assigned the number 13.
Sure enough, 13 immediately suggests bad luck, but the number is not important in itself. Rather, it strips the man it designates of all that makes him human (see Patrick McGoohan labelled ‘Number Six’ in The Prisoner – ‘I am not a number, I am a free man!’). Sébastien is reduced to a lottery ball spun around by the cruel law of chance, his thoughts strictly limited to where the deadly bullet is, and whether his whole being will be casually obliterated in the next round of the game.
That game is essentially an initiation to life in all its random brutality. The fresh-faced Sébastien is put through a trial by fire by a pack of rugged, leathery crooks and degenerate old thrill-seekers. All crocodile skins and glassy eyes, they watch jadedly as he learns that in the game of life it’s kill or be killed. In the first round, still innocent, he simply cannot bring himself to fire his pistol into another man’s head; once that line is crossed the only thing that remains in Sébastien is a ferocious survival instinct – having lost his innocence in the act of pulling the trigger, he now plays by the rules of the game.
The tension that builds up as the players go through the different rounds is almost unbearable. And what the game lacks in ingenuity and sophistication, it more than makes up for in sheer, brutal efficacy. As economical as it gets, the bare-bone set-up lets Babluani’s visual flair and gift for dramatic tension shine through. The high-contrast black and white photography infuses the film with oppressive strangeness – right from the more mundane opening scenes the grey sky is laden with the promise of inevitable doom.
There are obvious similarities with the earlier Spanish thriller Intacto, directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. Intacto also revolved around a game of chance, but while the plot was more convoluted than in 13, the ideas were much more superficial and simplistic. In Intacto, luck was reduced to a simple attribute tied to one’s photograph, which rather too straightforwardly could be augmented by stealing other people’s photos, or lost if one’s photo was taken. While undeniably engaging, Intacto neither managed the elegance of a Borgesian conundrum nor the raw power and existential intensity of 13.
13 also recalls Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1882 short story ‘The Suicide Club’. In that story Prince Florizel of Bohemia and his faithful confidant Colonel Geraldine, having gone out in the mean streets of London in search of an adventure, follow a desperate young man to the Suicide Club, a secret society set up to ‘help’ ruined gentlemen desirous to commit suicide while avoiding scandal. Brought together by misfortune, these men become the instrument of fate in one another’s lives. Every night they solemnly sit around a table for a random card draw, the ace of clubs designating the man who must kill, the ace of spades his victim. Once there, Prince Florizel and Colonel Geraldine find that they are now bound by the rules of the Club and must take part in the fateful card game.
Just as in ‘The Suicide Club’, the world of 13 is a fascinating secret society of men who meet to play a game of life and death. And just like Prince Florizel, Sébastien naïvely embarks on what he thinks is a promising adventure, unaware that by doing so he has already signed his name at the bottom of a diabolical pact. The fates of both men are sealed as soon as Prince Florizel follows the suicidal young man and Sébastien opens his employer’s letter, with no possibility of turning back. Of course, Stevenson being such a conservative writer, the ending of the otherwise compelling ‘Suicide Club’ is a boring, moralistic, and rather unconvincing return to order. Not so in 13.
Essay first published in the autumn 08 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.
Picture credit: 13 (Tzameti) (Dir. Gela Babluani, 2005).