LIKE A DIRTY FRENCH NOVEL (2021) Reviews of retro grindhouse noir flick

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Like a Dirty French Novel is a 2021 American grindhouse noir film about a flirty phone operator, odd twins and a cosplaying femme fatale.

Produced, directed, edited by and co-starring Mike Cuenca (I’ll Be Around: Side A and Side B; By the Wayside; Jerry Powell & the Delusions of Grandeur) from a screenplay co-written with Dan Rojay, based on a story co-written by Mike Cuenca, Ashlee Elfman and Dan Rojay.

The Blvd. Du Cinema Productions movie also stars Jennifer Daley, Miles Dougal, Brittany Samson, Amanda Viola and Grant Moninger.



Quentin Tarantino made it look so easy; do a hipster superviolent crime flick, noirish in spots but not too dark/heavy, populated with an ensemble cast of loosely connected larger-than-life underworld characters, most of whom toss off pop-culture references indicative of spending more time reading BFI and Hollywood-nostalgia magazines and going to reperatory cinemas than actually doing, you know, criminal stuff. Maybe insinuate a few nice retro-pop tunes. Farm it out to the festival circuit and you will be King of Cannes and maybe get to marry Madonna, for a little while.

Making it sound like I would send a James Cameron Terminator robot back in time to eliminate all prints of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction at the developing lab, thus sparing humanity all their imitations (I would do something like that but to the original 1978 Halloween, or, for that matter The Terminator). Actually, the Tarantino clones do have their moments of entertainment value and, as far as inspiring do-it-yourself filmmakers, they do count for more in exercising brain cells than just have another maniac with a pillowcase over his head chasing teenagers with a knife.

That’s the good news about Like a Dirty French Novel, maybe even enough to make one overlook the negative bits, that having capital-A Attitude and capital-S Splintered narrative only gets one so far.

The setting is the mythical city of “Petropolis.” Quarantine during a certain virus pandemic means that jigsaw-puzzle champion Hue (Robby Valls) cannot move out of the apartment he shares with angry ex-girlfriend Crystal (Jennifer Daley). Then Hue starts receiving cryptic, seductive phone calls from a Spanish-speaking mystery female. Two yobs, meanwhile, must venture out of their quarantine on an assignment to seize record-store owner Dooley (Grant Moninger) in some kind of gangland grudge. Dooley insists that it is all a mistake, that he has a lawless identical twin brother who is their real target. Their death car is stolen by a stranded woman named Lane (Amanda Viola), who meets a man who may or may not have been a ghost at a roadside memorial erected around a bicycle. There is also a popular fetish-photo model, the Silver Street Fox (Brittany Samson) tangled in all this. Need we mention the flash-aheads and unreliable timelines?

The violence, typically jarring amongst the Quentin-manque tribe, is here rendered cartoonish, in the most literal sense possible. Why is it all like a Dirty French Novel? I don’t know. A French novel is a sort-of clue in the movie, and it allegedly concerns the Collier brothers, two real-life NYC eccentrics and hoarders who infamously died smothered by their vast collection of old junk. Which may be a joke on the viewer – not a half-bad one if so. At least I’ve seen worse.

But it would have been a bonus to have a better sense of what was going on, even if director/actor Cuenca himself attempts a sort of summation at the end. He also makes the production look decent, for a DV project reputedly shot guerilla-style with no well-known performers and no money to speak of in the budget.

Give Like a Dirty French Novel a try when you are feeling in a forgiving and adventurous mood, or at least have a viewing medium capable of a few rewinds now and then. As for filmmaker Cuenca, I would advise him to tread carefully around Madonna. I just have a bad feeling.

Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA

Other reviews:

“There are mysteries to be solved as lives and souls converge, but the result (and the roads that lead to it) are more Lynch than Spillane. While it does not always work (there are one or two moments that are head-scratching regarding their existence), Cuenca’s film has an untamed energy in every segment that renders Like a Dirty French Novel indisputably watchable.” The Movie Revue

” …doesn’t feel like a genre movie, more like an absurd, sometimes even surreal collage that’s just fascinating to follow, and thanks to a dedicated cast and an atmospheric directorial effort this has become a very cool, at times trippy and David Lynchian experience that’s not to be missed.” Search My Trash

” …the constant apartment locations enhance the monotony of the plot, which at no point lives up to its title. There’s nothing sexy or edgy to sink one’s teeth into; what transpires is not lurid exploitation, but more boring lockdown fever dream – accentuated by a dizzying repetitive musical score. The coveted retro style is the film’s final downfall.” Starburst

Release date:

Like a Dirty French Novel had its world premiere at the 2021 Dances with Films festival being held at the Chinese Theaters in Hollywood on August 28, 2021.


This is the fourth feature by director Mike Cuenca. The movie was shot for one week at the end of October/beginning of November 2020. Cuenca had ideas for the story since his teens (a good twenty years). The story was fleshed out alongside Oblivion collaborator Ashlee Elfman and frequent collaborator Dan Rojay.

Dan Rojay and Cuenca proceeded to write the screenplay during quarantine with the intent of shooting it on the fly and without a budget. The film stars frequent Cuenca associates and with a portion of the cast being of Cuban origin.

Cast and characters:

Jennifer Daley … Crystal
Miles Dougal … Nelson
Brittany Samson … Esma
Amanda Viola … Lane
Mike Cuenca … Filmore Demille
Grant Moninger … Forester Dooley / Bugs Dooley
Laura Urgelles … The Caller
Claire Woolner … Lead Halloween Robber
Robby Valls … Hue
Dan Rojay … Evan / Scared Robber / Demon
Julie Pepin … Skeptic Eccentrix Phone Operator (voice)
Dominic Fawcett … Space Avenger
Joey Halter … Moe
Steven Escot … Goblin Robber / Hypochondriac
Giovanni Marks … Liquor Store Owner
Arko Miro … The Evil
Aaron Bustos … Jake Romero
Samantha Nelson … Janine Dooley

Technical details:

78 minutes
Colour and black and white


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