George Babluani as Sébastien
Aurélien Recoing as Jacky
Pascal Bongard as Master of Ceremonies
Fred Ulysse as Alain
Vania Vilers as Mr. Schloendorff
Christophe Vandevelde as Ludo
Olga Legrand as Mme Godon
Augustin Legrand as José
Joe Prestia as Pierre Bléreau
Philippe Passon as Jean-François Godon
Directed by Géla Babluani
The best part of Géla Babluani’s black and white crime thriller is the deadly gambling game at its core. Offering loads of tension and emotion, it’s able to make up for the tedious pace of everything that comes before and after.
Sébastien (George Babluani) is a 22-year-old housing roofer who one day comes upon a strange letter left behind by a man who died of an overdose. When he learns that the letter can lead to riches that might help his poor family, he decides to take the man’s place and ends up in the middle of a deadly game of chance where rich men bet on the lives of the players.
Géla Babluani’s debut is notable for a couple things, the most apparent being his desire to recreate the look and feel of old ’60s crime-thrillers, shooting in black and white and using a tone that would not have seemed out of place forty years ago. That gimmick alone would not be enough to make “13 Tzameti” worthwhile, but he’s also come up with an intriguing premise to go along with it, and it’s too bad that it takes almost 40 minutes before this idea is revealed.
Instead, we watch the awkward Sebastien doing his normal roofing gig before getting his hands on an envelope that might bring him the kind of fortune that could greatly help his poor family. As he follows the clues to the location of this “easy money,” he is followed by a group of men, obviously police who are trying to put a stop to this “get rich scheme.” This set-up is hopelessly slow and dull, and it’s not exactly clear what is happening, but when Sebastien finally arrives at his destination, the movie turns into something far more ruthless, as he’s suddenly thrown into a deadly gambling game that owes only a small amount of credit to that classic party favorite, Russian Roulette.
In principle, it’s a simple game: 13 men stand in a circle, each holding a gun with one bullet to the head of the man in front of them. They spin the cylinders, and when a switch is thrown and a light bulb goes off, they shoot. If the tension isn’t enough from the first round, another bullet is added in Round 2 and another in Round 3, eventually weeding down the game to the final two players.
With the introduction of this game, the movie is opened up to a lot more things to think about, such as the moral implications of a game where you might shoot and kill another man and yet not be able to keep yourself from being shot, that is, if the bullet is in the chamber of the gun held to your own head. For the hapless Sebastien, it puts him into this world where he may be forced to kill another man or be killed himself, while other men bet on who will survive. He also gets into a conflict with a tough opponent who seems a lot less conflicted about killing. It is very likely that these 30 minutes are some of the finest cinema you’re likely to see this year, with so much tension and emotion that it almost makes you forget how weak the movie was up until that point.
Still, Babluani’s desire to recreate the look and feel of old movies is a bit misguided in that it ends up completely detracting from the movie at first. Obviously, the stylish nature of the movie is a nod to the movies of Hitchcock and the like, but it’s bothersome that Babluani has no interest in realism, as all of the actors talk as if they’re in a movie and the camera lingers on their faces for no apparent reason. Rather than making the movie seem more arty, it just comes across as contrived and pretentious.
On top of that, the first third of the movie, which follows Sebastien in his every day life, is overscored with entirely inappropriate music including a haunting thriller theme that makes no sense with the images you’re watching on screen. Sure, it makes a bit more sense later, once Sebastien gets caught up in the deadly game, but that’s also when Babluani wisely starts cutting back on the amount of music, making the movie easier to watch and the music more effective.
Babluani’s biggest mistake though is casting his brother George in the lead, since George isn’t up to the task of holding the thing together except for in the roulette scenes where his awkwardness works. For the rest of the movie, he’s just sitting or standing around ruminating about one thing with a dumb look on his face, showing that he has less of an emotional range than a possum on Quaaludes.
Ultimately, the movie ends on a disappointing note after peaking in the second act, but it’s that unconventional gambling game which stays with you, and it makes it worth rewatching the beginning again to see how all the pieces come together. The premise is good and original enough that an American remake would certainly be interesting, especially if made with a more charismatic lead and without the pretentious attempts at being retro. Someone like David Fincher would turn the idea into a movie that’s more than just a potential cult classic.
The Bottom Line:
Cinephiles may appreciate Babluani’s flare for recreating the look and feel of old crime thrillers, but it tends to detract from the experience more than add to it. Fortunately, the central premise with its deadly betting game and what the film’s protagonist has to go through more than makes up for the contrived pretensions of trying to make it look like a black and white classic.