Teddy (Anthony Bajon) is a dork. He thinks he’s cool, so subversive, but he’s a 20-something high school dropout still living in an upstairs room in a nothing tiny town in the French Pyrenees. But a change is coming for Teddy, whether he likes it or not.
The first of a trio of werewolf flicks (alongside the bleaker Bloodthirsty and dark comedy The Wolf of Snow Hollow) to screen/stream at this year’s virtual Celebration of Fantastic Fest, French lycanthropic drama Teddy is by far the most traditional. Teddy gets bitten, starts to find himself losing control of his urges and his body, and then loses himself under his own brand new skin. Yet he has neither the tragic allure of Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.’s all-time great wolfman), the innocent-abroad victimhood of poor David Kessler in An American Werewolf in London, or the underdog status of the Fitzgerald sisters in Ginger Snaps.
Writer/directors Ludovic and Zoran Boukherma don’t give the audience much to sympathize with with Teddy: first time the audience sees him, he’s disrupting the unveiling ceremony for the town’s new World War II monument, before sulking off home, where he is stuck caring for his invalid foster-mother, and kept in check by the perpetually overly-patient Pépin (Ludovic Torrent), with whom Teddy constantly squabbles – in between his hated job as a masseur, and spending time with his girlfriend, Rebecca (Christine Gautier).
That there’s anything sympathetic about Teddy at all comes down to Bajon’s performance, and its balanced out by the way he lets the wolfman become so unlikable. He’s obnoxious, surly, and living in his own bubble, and Bajon rounds him out as a young man on the verge of realizing he’s going nowhere. There’s a subtle hint of desperation, much of it built around Teddy’s realization that he’ll be left behind by Rebecca one day.
But what makes Teddy fascinating is that, in an age when finding the beast within is usually a narrative path to liberation, the Boukhermas pull back to the tragedy. Teddy isn’t a wildling finding his true nature. He’s a guy whose go-nowhere life is ripped apart by an even greater tragedy. Teddy puts all the classic tropes of the form as laid down by the old Universal films – down to the classic angry mob hunting him down in his shabby lair – into a modern, small-town context.
Teddy is best at its most restrained and intimate, and the Boukhermas make great use of very few resources. Tiny instances of gruesomeness, like Teddy contending with hair in the strangest places, are more effective than any grand guignol set pieces than they could hope to achieve, so they keep a tight focus. When they do – like a key moment illuminated by solely by a cellphone screen – it’s striking, and that’s what makes the odd moment of bigger FX work (including a jarring CG shot) disappointing. When they keep a tight grip on a young man losing everything, Teddy has a certain bite. It’s a challenge to make the audience care about a character with so little appeal, but they undoubtedly lure you in.
A Celebration of Fantastic Fest
Online at www.fantasticfest.com, Sept. 24-Oct. 1. Find news, interviews, and reviews at austinchronicle.com/fantastic-fest