Review: Dr Knock, Mars Films

Liza Dezfouli

Naff French film by director Lorraine Levy avoids the caustic humour of earlier versions of Dr Knock.
Review: Dr Knock, Mars Films

 Omar Sy in Dr Knock.

Lorraine Lévy’s film version of Dr Knock, the well-known (in France, at least) darkly comic play from 1923 by Jules Romains, stars Omar Sy as a troubled conman who poses as a doctor on board ship while on the run from underworld creditors. Knock goes on to actually graduate from medical school five years after the film's opening events and takes himself off to the quiet village of St Maurice.

The departing village doctor Dr. Parpalaid (Nicolas Marié), has been in the habit of treating the locals with folk remedies, resulting in little business for the village pharmacist (Michel Vuillermoz). Dr Knock sets about convincing the locals they have dire health problems in a strategy to fleece increasing numbers of them for services and cures they don’t need. This works, implausibly, and makes Knock rich. (The chemist is happy.)

Set in the 1950s, Dr Knock is soaked in nostalgia for French village way of life that never was, complete with characterisations from Rural French Clichés 101 – a drunken postie (Christian Hecq), riding his bicycle haphazardly over the village cobblestones, for instance, and overly respectable wealthy widow (Helene Vincent) setting the tone of the village.

Any real satirical comment on the villagers’ collective sense of self-importance, on self-interest and vanity, is lost because the film plays it safe on every level; it treats the actually reprehensible actions of Knock as little more than pranks, and positions practically the entire village population as (pretty stupid) sitting ducks for Knock’s manipulative salvos. I would imagine French country folk of the day to be generally suspicious of outsiders, wily and naturally resistant to shysters, but perhaps that’s another stereotype. The character of Knock is pleasant, charming enough but simply not intriguing or textured: the original’s depth and sharp wit have been sadly diluted.

I wasn’t convinced by any of the female characters either, and hated the way love interest ‘la petite Adele’ (played by Ana Girardot), is set up as the chaste young girl, deserving of Knock’s attentions, contrasted with the bored lusty chemist’s wife (Audrey Dana), who makes an embarrassing play for the village's hot new doc. However, it turns out she’s performed this turn before, so her behaviour isn’t really the result of Knock's appeal, it’s cos she’s ‘sex-starved’: the film is scared of presenting Sy’s character as exotic so his obvious sexual attractiveness is (pardon le pun) 'whitewashed'; he’s only admitted to be (giggle) ‘handsome’.

Omar Sy, charming and agreeable, doesn’t quite shine in this. His character comes across as lightweight, nice, somewhat morally corrupt and resourceful, but without the acute psychological nous he’s supposed to possess. He falls for local ingenue ‘petite Adele’, presumably because of her innocence and lack of pretention, and she falls for his kindness rather than his lustworthiness, which is all very virtuous but boring as. 

The bizarre thing about Dr Knock is the townfolk’s complete absence of racism. Instead of expressing any reluctance to accept him, they have conversations about his je ne sais quoi. With Dr Knock being a big black man – the only noir in the village at a time and in a place where deep suspicion of difference would surely be the norm – this avoidance of the whole issue weakens the film, robbing it of the chance to establish some real stakes or interesting motivation while sacrificing opportunities for good comedy.

How much more interesting the film could have been had Knock and the locals had to overcome real distrust of each other, or had Adele been forced to address her fears of being shunned because of her alliance with a black man. But no, the whole town except the put-upon curé (nicely played by stand-up comedian Alex Lutz), the only interesting character in the film, becomes infatuated with Dr Knock; the tragedy when it comes doesn’t feel tragic and the finale is a sentimental celebration of an unlikely sense of community given how Knock has played them all.

Dr Knock looks pretty thanks to cinematographer, Emmanuel Soyer, but it’s a dud. There are much stronger French films to enjoy, especially right now at MIFF.

Rating: 2 ½ stars ★★☆

Dr Knock
Writer-director: Lorraine Levy
Cast: Omar Sy, Alex Lutz, Ana Girardot, Sabine Azema, Pascal Elbe, Audrey Dana, Michel Vuillermoz, Christian Hecq, Helene Vincent, Andrea Ferreol, Rufus, Nicolas Marié

Screenplay based on the play Knock by Jules Romains
In French, English 113 minutes

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Liza Dezfouli reviews live performance, film, books and occasionally music. She writes a blog under her own name and another, somewhat less-measured one called WhenMrWrongfeelsSoRight. She writes for performance every now and then, and can occasionally be seen on stage or in short films. An avid arts glutton, she's consistently thrilled by the talent abounding in her adopted city of Melbourne. For more: www.lizadezfouli.com.

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