(director/writer: Gela Babluani; cinematographer: Tariel Meliava; editor: Noémie Moreau; music: East (Troublemakers); cast: Georges Babluani (Sebastien), Aurélien Recoing (Jacky), Pascal Bongard (Master of Ceremonies), Fred Ulysse (Alain, sponsor of contestant 13), Philippe Passon (Jean-François Godon), Nicolas Pignon (Romain), Vania Vilers (Mr. Schloendorf), Temur Babluani (Sadik), Olga Legrand (Mme Godon); Runtime: 93; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Gela Babluani; Palm Pictures; 2005-France-in French with English subtitles)

“Meant more as perverse gimmicky entertainment than in telling anything meaningful about the human condition.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Debut film by 26-year-old Georgian director-writer Gela Babluani (“The Legacy” 2006), who is currently living in France and is the son of a noted exiled Georgian filmmaker Temur Babluani. It’s a stylishly slick but superficial exploitative driven Hostel or Fight Club or Intacto type of film. If you will, a wannabe shocking snuff-like film meant more as perverse gimmicky entertainment than in telling anything meaningful about the human condition. It’s shot in a grainy noirish black-and-white, giving it a look that can be admired but it’s still an unpleasant film to view. “13 Tzameti,” translated into English from Georgian to mean “Contestant 13”, won the best first feature prize at the 2005 Venice Film Festival and the grand jury prize for world cinema at Sundance in 2006 because of its killer premise.

Economically struggling 22-year-old boyish looking immigrant Sébastien (George Babluani, the director’s brother), who supports his mom and his lame brother, is a laborer in a seedy port city along the Normandy coast in France contracted by a sleazy couple to fix the roof on their cottage. When the piggish morphine addict master of the house Jean-Francois Godon (Philippe Passon) dies of a drug overdose, his nagging unhappy broke wife (Olga Legrand) stiffs the roofer. But he overhears from eavesdropping through a hole in the roof about a mysterious “job” promising big money to Godon and steals the envelope that contains the instructions of where to go to strike it rich. The kid replaces Godon, even though he has no idea what he’s getting into. Sébastien follows the instructions of the letter and uses the train ticket to get to the arranged Paris hotel while he is unknowingly being followed by the police, who had Godon under surveillance. After receiving a phone call in his hotel room, the kid leaves Paris and gets off at the rural Valersay train station and loses his police tail when picked up at a deserted crossroads by his well-organized sponsors and is driven to a secluded big house.

Warning: spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

The kid discovers that he’s the thirteenth contestant involved in a game of Russian roulette, where the contestants stand in a circle with guns raised to each other’s heads as high-stake gamblers bet big money on the winner. With no way to retreat, even as his sponsors realize that he’s not Godon, the kid wearing the unlucky number 13 on his back must play this game and test his luck. This part reminds one of The Deer Hunter, as the contestants if they wish are supplied with morphine to deaden their nerves so that can play the game more relaxed.

The derivative sicko film is about bored rich people trying to get a life through the vicarious thrill of betting on others who put their life on the line, greedy exploitative entrepreneurs trying to make a fast buck off someone else’s risk taking, losers looking to make a big killing as contestants and the view of chance as one’s best ticket to a good or bad life. Though it looks great, there’s hardly any substance to its absurd, cynical, grim and nihilistic story. A highly overrated film, one that is all eerie atmosphere and fake looks at real life. An English remake is planned for 2009, which should be one foreign film Hollywood can’t spoil.

REVIEWED ON 1/14/2009 GRADE: C      https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/