While attending what is known as a "cowboy fair" -- something that looks essentially like a small-town Texas BBQ/fair, right down to the American flags, save for everyone speaking French -- Alain (Francois Damiens) discovers his daughter Kelly (Iliana Zabeth) has disappeared. Seemingly more angry than concerned, he starts digging for evidence, searching her room and interrogating her friends, until he discovers a secret boyfriend, Ahmed (Mounir Margoum). Alain is unhappy that Ahmed is a Muslim, and more unhappy that her notebooks contain pages of Arabic writing, which he proceeds to teach himself searching for clues. As his anger hardens into a dogged pursuit he cannot be talked out of, he begins to enlist his son, Georges (Finnegan Oldfield) to help him. Georges is not driven by the same passion to find Kelly, but reluctantly participates, because he knows his father has nothing else.
Kelly represents the Hitchcockian element. She is present at the beginning of the movie only briefly before her disappearance, and although the family hears rumors and receives letters from her, there is no guarantee any of them are true. Almost immediately, she shifts from being a character to an enigmatic spectre that Alain can't stop chasing. Although her appearance is fleeting, as ten, twenty, thirty minutes pass, we start to wonder if she'll even be recognizable if Alain manages to find her. That feeling only deepens when the responsibility shifts from Alain to Georges, who becomes an aid worker overseas in the wake of 9/11, taking up the trail in Afghanistan. He partners with an American (John C. Reilly) who needs someone to watch his back as he tries to set up a business deal with some men he doesn't know, and whose most open confession is his comment that he works "in trade." Here, the film switches gears, refocusing itself on Georges' actions and how they completely change the life of Shazhana (Ellora Torchia). She is Ahmed's second wife, with Kelly having apparently left him long ago. Through a series of complicated events, Shazhana ends up returning to France with Georges, where he gets a job in a hospital and she attempts to integrate herself into the local culture.
The film is handsomely made, with a low-key style that is subtle but striking. Even as the story takes bleak turns, there's a visual warmth to the film's look that almost feels wistful, and technology, a marker of time, is downplayed in a way that both directly places the film in the past with 9/11 as a mid-point, but more importantly removes it from most contexts where the story could seem era-specific. There is one spectacular moment that can only be described as a stunt sequence, and even a brief but tense low-speed chase through Afghanistan streets. Performances are respectable across the board, with the possible exception of Reilly. His American doesn't have a particularly strong point of view and is mostly a plot device, which makes Reilly's decision to take on the role and Bidegain's decision to accept feel somewhat cynical.
As the film slowly develops, two threads reveal themselves as key: the interaction between the French and Muslims, and the possibility that Georges will turn out like Alain, a haunted man whose life has become consumed by a need to chase someone who stated in her first letter sent after she disappeared, that the family should not look for her and that she does not want to be found. Simultaneously, one can see how Bidegain fails to service either one to the fullest. For one thing, Alain exhibits a number of racist tendencies and clearly does not enjoy interacting with Ahmed's family or his people, but his bigotry never feels more than secondary to the chase, the need for answers, the need for resolution. To see Georges reject that racism is not particularly startling, because from the very beginning his point of view on Kelly's disappearance is much different. As an assistant, he is automatically following his father's lead, and even when he takes over, although he falls into some of the same traps and patterns, there's never a sense that finding Kelly means as much to Georges as it does to Alain, even if Georges does miss her. Without the same drive, Bidegain drifts into the thread about Shazhana less out of narrative drive and more out of necessity -- clearly, at a certain point, Georges would rather return home. He also brushes by a major plot point in the movie's last few minutes, a parallel between Alain and Ahmed's father that would seem to be of crucial importance.
The Video and Audio
An original theatrical trailer for Les Cowboys is also included.