A bar fight breaks out during a pivotal scene in Django, the musically crisp yet mournful new wartime drama by Étienne Comar. As the fracas unfolds, the band keeps playing, with a blithe bemusement that seems to say: This happens all the time. But these are far from normal times.
The leader of the band is Django Reinhardt, the incomparably gifted Romani jazz guitarist, soulfully embodied by the French-Algerian actor Reda Kateb. He's biding his time in the French Alps during German occupation, hoping for stealth passage across Lake Geneva into Switzerland. One of the men throwing punches is a Nazi solider, which means the inevitable: a lineup, a lockup and the sternest of warnings. Reinhardt is no good, it would seem, at laying low.
Kateb studied the guitar for a year to prepare for this role, and his work is evident: There's an unstudied naturalism to the flicker of his fingers across the fretboard, and the film perks up whenever music is playing. (The guitarist on the soundtrack is Stochelo Rosenberg, who was born in a Dutch Sinti camp, and named his own most recent album Djangologists.) Kateb is also an effective stoic, with a face that communicates through minimal effect.
Django isn't really a biopic, despite the implication of its title: There are no misty flashbacks to Reinhardt's childhood stealing chickens in the French countryside, and no scene depicting the caravan fire that badly damaged his left hand (though his two mangled fingers do come up for inspection). The film is more of a fraught character study, a portrait of the artist under pressure. Comar, best known as a writer and producer of the 2010 film Of Gods and Men, brings admirable restraint to his directorial debut, keeping the stakes high and the focus taut.
Reinhardt is a laconic and reluctant hero: "This isn't my war," he growls, citing allegiance not to a flag but to a Romani's coldly pragmatic ambivalence. Django charts his awakening to the horrors of the war — notably for his people, whose mass extermination imbues the film with a self-righteous, lugubrious air. Comar is more effective with uneasy proximities and grim capitulations, showing how complicity can form through a series of slippages.
But the film's story — loosely adapted from Alexis Salatko's novel Folles de Django — manages to feel at once oversimplified, underfed and overburdened. Reinhardt's personal evolution is clumsily tracked in dialogue with a former mistress who has suffered unnamed violations at the hands of the occupiers: "You're the only person this war hasn't changed," she says bitterly to Reinhardt. (She later rescinds the charge.) A climactic set piece at a Nazi banquet feels pat.
It's not inherently a problem that Comar does less with plot than he does with imagery: There's vivid poignancy in his depiction of the mass evacuation, and in Reinhardt's desperate flight through the snow. But by all accounts — the most authoritative being Michael Dregni's excellent biography Django: The Life and Music of a Gypsy Legend — Reinhardt was even more conflicted during the occupation than this film makes him out to be.
His elegant ballad "Nuages," for instance, was a rousing anthem for the French Resistance. The song appears early in the film, as if Comar were eager to get it out of the way. The Resistance itself is an amorphous presence — surely an intentional choice, though the reasons are unclear.
And what's meant to be a wrenching coda — the post-armistice premiere of an organ mass called "Requiem for Gypsy Brothers" — is marred by the wan pathos of the music itself, composed by Warren Ellis. As the piece plays, Reinhardt stands dumbstruck, overcome. But if we're supposed to believe this piece represents the peak of Reinhardt's emotional expression, the point is discredited by earlier musical evidence. In a film that's so often about taking sides, Django can feel at war with itself.