The “buddy road trip” movie has long been a comedy staple. You take two (or more characters) out of their usual environment and set them on a quest. Chaos, mishaps and misunderstandings ensue. There’s usually a fallout, a reconciliation and, somewhere along the line, a deep moment of self-actualisation.
Writer/director Dimitris Bavellas uses this movie formula as something of a jumping-off point for his third feature-length production, In The Strange Pursuit of Laura Durand. He really plays around with tone, style and visuals throughout, with mixed results.
The film centres around two listless friends, Christos (Michalis Sarantis) and Antonis (Makis Papadimitrou). Their lives in Athens aren’t quite what they hoped they would be. Everything seems grey and lacking. Antonis’ wife is leaving him (and taking half their furniture with her) whilst Christos has had his unemployment benefit stopped and is staring down the barrel of a lung cancer diagnosis. Their “music career” consists of the odd gig in a local bar. So, in pursuit of something more exciting, the friends decide to embark on an investigation into the disappearance of prominent 90s porn star, Laura Durand.
It all feels a little slow to start, with the first thirty minutes or so being entirely mirthless. However, once the “quest” part of the narrative kicks in, things start to pick up a little. Tracking a cartoonised version of their blue camper van across a map of Athens, the film is split into different chapters, with each chapter representing a different stop on the journey. This allows Bavellas to really change things up – visually and tonally – throughout the film.
Each destination or chapter seems to set up the opportunity for physical or verbal comedy that never quite materialises. In that sense, it is reminiscent of the Romanian “buddy comedy” Two Lottery Tickets. Their pit stop at a yoga retreat sees women literally glow and sparkle when the awkward friends set eyes on them. A run down house in the countryside is swept with a yellowish tinge and is accompanied by spaghetti Western style music. A run down ancestral home at the edge of a forest is shot entirely in sepia, complete with crypt keeper style organ music. It is this portion of the film that is, by far, the most amusing, as the elderly Ms Virginia (Ivonni Maltezou), with her Bride of Frankenstein streak of white hair, takes drugs and dances around her house in a conga line.
There are also some neat fourth wall breaks throughout, where Antonis and Christos look and smile and nod directly at the viewer. It’s also funny to see Christos attempt to join a mosh pit with a pink LED helmet on. There’s a particularly clever joke about Directors of Photography on film sets that really works, but that’s about as far as the humour ever goes.
Many European films that choose to hit the festival circuit tend to rely heavily on physical comedy or slapstick – a universal comedy language – but In The Strange Pursuit of Laura Durand does not. It just doesn’t have much in the way of verbal comedy to offer, either. A lot of times along the way, there’s just a lot of screaming and running. As a result of the tone being so changeable, it doesn’t feel like you ever get the chance to settle into the story or invest in the characters (which is disappointing in such a small cast).
This lack of character development is particularly jarring when little droplets of tragedy are placed throughout the script. We learn that Laura (Anna Kalaitzidou) was trafficked into porn as a minor, stalked by her fans and left entirely burnt out before she disappeared. Christos is obviously dealing with his own mortality. There is a really touching moment between the two men when they discuss the prospect of a life cut short but this is quickly undermined by a return to silliness. It’s a real shame as, it’s in these kinds of moments, you can engage with the two leads. The ending of the film (which this review will not spoil) is rather touching. It’s gentle and quiet – a complete contrast to everything that has gone before.
It often feels like this is a movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be. There are simply too many ideas thrown into the mix. Yes, it does seem to use the “buddy road trip” formula as a loose attempt at fitting into the comedy genre, but it veers off on several different tangents.
Unfortunately, not all of these ideas work. Whilst the visuals and musical score are entertaining enough throughout, In The Strange Pursuit of Laura Durand is a Greek comedy that just about stops short of becoming a Greek tragedy.