Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Bird is the Word

Film: S’en Fout la Mort (No Fear No Die)
Format: Video from The Magic Flashdrive on laptop.

Ever get one of those films that pulls you strongly in two completely opposite directions? S’en Fout la Mort (No Fear No Die) was like that for me. There’s a lot here to like and a lot here that borders on the stomach-turning, especially for anyone concerned even a little with the rights and well-being of animals, since one of the main plot threads concerns an illegal cockfighting ring. It’s difficult to watch despite the film being completely compelling in all other ways.

Dah (Isaach De Bankole) and Jocelyn (Alex Descas) have signed a deal with a man named Ardennes (Jean-Claude Brialy). The deal is that they will train roosters to fight in an illegal cockfighting ring for a small percentage of the take. Ardennes, for his part, will maintain them, give them a place to live and work, and do everything necessary to ensure a constant flood of bloodthirsty bettors on the fights. Dah has more of a head for business while Jocelyn trains the birds to fight. He has a way with birds, and he soon attaches himself to one he names S’en Fout la Mort.

If that were all, though, this would be a strange love story between a man and a rooster, but the cockfighting, for as central as it is to the plot, is not the main story here. No, the real story here is the even stranger love story between Jocelyn and Toni (Solveig Dommartin), the wife of Ardennes. Jocelyn is hopelessly in love with her, and evidently has been for some time, and it appears that at least his surface feelings may be requited. However, Jocelyn is unable to act on his feelings, and instead begins to lose himself in alcohol, which dramatically affects the care and status of the birds. Things begin to unravel when Ardennes suggests that their fights are not enough like those in Mexico; he wants to attach open steel blades to the leg spurs of the roosters to produce a better show, and thus make more money. The relationship between Jocelyn and Toni is further complicated by Ardennes’s son (Christopher Buchholz), who is at least obsessed with Toni.

I’ll be blunt: I don’t really know what to make of this film. A part of me wants to like it, if for no other reason than I really like Isaach De Bankole as a general rule. He shows up in a lot of films as a West African Francophone, most notably for me in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. (If you’ve seen that film, he’s the French-speaking ice cream man, and he’s almost instantly recognizable here.) As I said at the top, this is a film that has a lot going for it. It’s well filmed and paced and interesting throughout.

The problem, honestly, is the cockfighting. It seems so needlessly cruel and simultaneously bizarre to me. I can’t for the life of me understand the appeal of watching a couple of bird flap around and slash each other with blades. Beyond that, though, forcing two animals to fight each other is one of the cruelest things I can think of, and there’s a lot of cockfighting in this film. I don’t know how Claire Denis managed to pull this off without catching hell from every animal rights group on the planet, although this may be an indication of the reason this film is so damned hard to locate.

So it becomes a question of what I find more important. Is the quality of the film and the story more important to me, or is it more important that I am being asked to watch a spectacle that is in its very heart something vicious and brutal to poor dumb animals that can’t know any better? Where do my loyalties lie here—with filmmaker or with bird? There are too many moments here that really look genuine, like birds were actually forced to fight each other and may well have killed each other for me to want to see this again. It’s like a snuff film of potential dinners, and it’s not at all pleasant to witness.

I guess, then, ultimately my choice is for the sake of the poor, dumb birds. While the story here is a good one and is inextricably linked with the cockfighting ring, it’s that cockfighting ring that ultimately kills the picture for me. I don’t want to see an animal—any animal—slaughtered for anyone’s enjoyment, least of all mine.

Why to watch S’en Fout la Mort: The best movie about cockfighting you are likely to see.
Why not to watch: It’s about cockfighting, after all.


  1. I know Isaach De Bankolé from his work on "24," where he played the very unlucky president of the fictional country of Sangala. Solid actor.

    "No Fear No Die" is a quirky translation of "S'en Fout la Mort." The slang expression "se foutre de" means any number of things, but is usually used as a declaration of bravado or unconcern. "On s'en fout!" is often heard in France in the context of the dismissal of a problem.

    A: But what about the biker gang chasing us?
    B: On s'en fout!

    At its most literal, the expression means something like "to (mockingly) ignore." In the biker-gang dialogue above, I could translate "On s'en fout!" as "We aren't worried about them!" or even "Fuck them!" So "S'en Fout la Mort" could, in theory, translate as "Fuck Death!" It's what I'd want written on my helmet if I were a fighter pilot.

  2. I did not know this movie was about cockfighting. Thank you for letting me know this. This means I will NOT be watching this movie - and I'm okay with that. I have zero tolerance for nearly anything to do with animals in film, let alone cruelty to animals. I can't even watch nature documentaries. I once caught about two minutes of "Harry and Tonto" on TV and spent the rest of the night sobbing uncontrollably.

    1. @Kevin--I was hoping you'd come in and translate a little more aptly. I go, of course, with what I'm told. Of course, idiomatic expressions are always the most difficult thing to translate accurately, and it sounds like this is one of those.

      @Sio--Yeah, about half an hour in, I started thinking that this was going to be one you couldn't watch.

  3. I'm in the middle ground with this film, too. What I liked best about it was the parallel between the main rooster that he is training and his own situation. In a way they are both the same: fighting for what they get, good at what they do, but certainly not in the mainstream, and at the mercy of the big boss.

    I believe there was a disclaimer after the film that no birds were harmed because I remember wondering how the hell they had accomplished that when it looked so real.

    I was actually amused at the training regimen for the bird. I guess I had figured they just put the birds in the ring and they do their thing. I had never thought about a bird actually being trained. When he was moving the bird from side to side to build up its lateral motion and quickness I was amused by the entire concept.

    1. I didn't talk much about the training. A lot of it I didn't really understand. I mean, he chased it around with a broom and spun it around in the air.

      That disclaimer was there. I supposed I should take it at face value, but I'm not really sure how.