Vincent (Karim Leklou) is the kind of man so insignificant that middle age seems destined to make him invisible. He posts sad selfies that make you wonder if he’s ever seen a photograph before. He makes weird little “jokes” about how the intern at work is late with his coffee, despite being reminded that the intern doesn’t do coffee runs. His girlfriend recently dumped him. The man radiates such pathetic energy that you just want to give him a hug—or maybe a Civil War trivia book to occupy his lonely nights.
So why, then, does everyone who sees him try to kill him? It’s a great question that “Vincent Must Die” never has to answer.
From the moment we meet Vincent, many people seem to agree that he must die. Everyone from new interns to longtime coworkers and complete strangers on the street are possessed by an overwhelming desire to beat the crap out of him from the moment they make eye contact. Stéphan Castang’s film cleverly opts to steal a page from the “Groundhog Day” playbook and never reveals the cause of the phenomenon. Instead, the film becomes a character study examining what might happen when a man who is basically the human embodiment of the color beige is treated with the kind of animosity usually reserved for John Wick.
Vincent is a soldier and seems content to continue working every day in his architectural firm and simply enduring the occasional beating. But his boss sits him down and explains that the daily attacks have turned into a distraction at the office. He asks Vincent to work from home, which seems like a good deal, until the guys from Vincent’s apartment building start attacking him in the hallways. When he’s caught beating elementary school students in self-defense, his neighbors understandably question his alibi about kids attacking a 40-year-old man for no reason. The incident turns him into a pariah who cannot be seen leaving his apartment while the neighbors are awake.
At one point Vincent realizes that “living in human society” is not a proposition that has much to offer a man with his newfound condition. So he decides to go on the run, where other men start to notice that he never looks anyone in the eye. These men have a tendency to find each other, and Vincent discovers he’s not alone in his illness. They’ve formed a clandestine society called The Sentinel, where they share survival tips on a decent online forum.
If you want to survive as a Sentinel, there are some rules you need to learn very quickly. You have to learn to stitch up your wounds, because hospital workers will probably try to kill you. You need to delete your social media accounts, because people will see you in photographs and try to find you. And you need to get a dog, because they’re the only species that doesn’t cheat on you and they can recognize the scent of someone who has decided to kill you.
Vincent retreats to his father’s dilapidated holiday home in the countryside, where he can be left alone to read his survival forums in peace. But now grocery shopping is impossible, so he starts parking outside a local restaurant and asks them to carry large quantities of food in his car. Although he radiates embarrassment and misanthropy, he somehow vibrates with Margaux (Vimala Pons), the waitress in charge of delivering his weekly supply of food.
They spark a new connection that is only hampered by the fact that she occasionally tries to kill him. But while her fellow Sentinels have given up on human contact entirely, Vincent and Margaux are convinced that an alternative solution is worth trying. She agrees to spend time with him regularly wearing handcuffs and blindfolds so they can get to know each other without unexpected fits. The lengths they must go to just to enjoy the casual date become more and more extreme, but as Vincent sees the death of despair starting to overwhelm his lonely friends, they become more determined to make things work.
“Vincent Must Die” begins with an absolute bang. The darkly comic first act is full of genuine laughs as everyone in Vincent’s life tries to calculate the minimum amount of empathy they should offer this man they don’t particularly care about. His therapist suggests that the attacks are a result of his attention-seeking behavior—a ridiculous suggestion considering his shyness—and one of Vincent’s attackers considers filing a complaint with HR. against him due to the inconvenience caused by the accident.
Unfortunately, the very plot elements that make the opening so entertaining end up weighing down the rest of the film. The genius of the premise is that Vincent is so bland and vanilla that you can’t possibly understand why people hate him so much. But Leklou might be too good at playing a sad sack with nothing interesting about him. Once he steps out of society and away from the conflict, you’re left to watch a character study on a character not worth studying.
It becomes clear that the fascination lay not with Vincent himself, but with how he interacted with the world. His inability to navigate the nuances of office politics was incredibly hilarious. Watching him order sad takeout meals and attempt to fix his septic tank himself, not so much. His romance with Margaux never shakes the aura of being a contrived plot device, because it’s never believable that anyone with a pulse would see this guy as a love interest.
Castang and screenwriter Mathieu Naert seem to tease us with the multitude of exciting paths the film could take before finally choosing the least interesting one. Instead of continuing with the dark comedy or fleshing out the mythology of The Sentinel, they take the darker route and leave us with something that eventually starts to look like a generic zombie movie. The natural response to the first dozen attempts on Vincent’s life is righteous indignation at the poor man’s mistreatment. But after an hour and a half, it’s questionable whether the possessed crowd has discovered anything.
“Vincent Must Die” premiered during Critics Week at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.