There are two common opinions about the film 99 Francs. According to the first, J. Kunen’s film is another denunciation of the lack of spirituality of modern society, which differs from dozens of other denunciations only by a slightly higher level of naturalism. Supporters of the second opinion see “99 Francs” primarily as a screen version of the bestseller of the same name by F. Beigbeder, which paints the unsightly underside of the advertising world.
The most interesting thing is that both opinions are both correct and incorrect at the same time. Yes, the heroes – more precisely, the film’s antiheroes – sell, are sold and indulge in vices, but the content of 99 Francs is much deeper than banal moralizing. Yes, the film is based on a novel, but it is an independent work, and you don’t have to read Beigbeder’s novel to understand it. But it is necessary at least in general terms to be familiar with such an achievement of modern French philosophy as the theory of simulacra.
Simulacra, advertising and the meaning of the film
The theory of simulacra, largely created by the great French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, is an attempt to comprehend a new, informational society in which we all live. The information society is overflowing with images that stand for nothing, a kind of visual “dummy”. These are simulacra: everything that we see on screens and monitors, but that does not exist in reality. A simulacrum is also singing to a soundtrack, when the singer only opens his mouth; and the ideal figure of the model, created with the help of “Photoshop”; and showdowns in talk shows like “Let them talk”, rehearsed in advance behind the scenes.
At its core, “simulacra” is closest to such concepts as “imitation” and “illusion”, and therefore advertising is the best illustration of this theory. Advertising creates a whole artificial world in which everything is a simulacrum, from the extraordinary properties of the advertised product to the scenery against which commercials are filmed. However, 99 Francs is not a film about how advertising deceives people (or rather, not only about this). Advertising is a symbol of modern society, in which, according to Beigbeder and Kuhnen, absolutely everything is a simulacrum, an imitation, a “dummy”.
In this world, “creativity” comes down to creating commercials, “love” to sex without the slightest commitment, “friendship” to drinking and sharing drugs. Everything is not real, even venal sex: with the subtle irony characteristic of the French, this is demonstrated by the scene when Octave removes Tamara as a prostitute. (By the way, Tamara is not a real prostitute, and her hair, like her eye color, is artificial). Thus, 99 Francs is a film about the civilization of forgeries, false images – and those who create these false images.
What’s the problem with Octave?
The main character of the film surprises with his persistent tendency to self-destruction with the help of drugs, which almost sent him to the next world. The question arises: what is it lacking? After all, he does what he likes, succeeds in his business and earns great money. Octave’s problem is that he’s smart and talented. We can say that he is too smart for his work, and therefore he cannot help but understand that he serves a lie, and not the truth. We do not know what the creative potential of Octave was once, but he undoubtedly was, otherwise he would not have felt so bad now. Drugs and orgies are a way to forget, but at some point they stop helping, and Octave decides on a riot – albeit a very peculiar one.
What’s the Octave riot?
Apart from self-destruction as a form of rebellion against the system, we can say that Octave, right up to the finale (more precisely, the finals, we will talk about them later), challenges the current state of affairs three times. The first time is when he proudly leaves a meeting at which the head of the Madon Corporation rejected his version of the commercial. Undoubtedly, the proud departure greatly relieved the sudden nosebleeds, but for Octave it was an act. The second time he comes to the point of wanting to quit and even throws a credit card on the boss’s desk. True, the impulse lasted about three minutes, after which Octave changed his mind about quitting. For the third time, we are talking about drug hallucinations, in which he exposes the advertising family, destroys the scenery and finally hits Jeff in the head.
Thus, right up to the denouement, the Octave riot is an imitation of a riot (or even a parody of it), but it’s not so simple with the endings either.
What is the real ending?
The viewer is offered two versions of the ending: a tragedy and a happy ending. According to the first, Sophie committed suicide, Octave came to arrest the moment he found out about it, and he jumped down from the roof of a skyscraper. The film begins with a scene of a fall, so that such an ending seems to be expected – and then suddenly the viewer is offered the second option, where everything is completely different. Octave went through a spiritual crisis, took revenge on the bad owner of the Madon concern and left for a beautiful tropical world, where Sophie and his daughter were waiting for him.
It’s time to get confused: what really happened? The correct answer is nothing. In the world of simulacra, there are no real tragedies or real happy ends. Both endings exist only in the stormy fantasy of the protagonist. And since in the last frames we are shown the book of Octave, then, most likely, this is all over: he left advertising for literature. By the way, in a certain sense, this is a moral victory: a writer, offering a literary text, i.e. fiction, does not deceive the reader.
What is the meaning of the title of the film?
It is believed that Beigbeder used the price tag as the title: the first edition of his book was sold for 99 francs. But another interpretation is possible: 99 francs, less than a hundred – a typical trading trick that encourages a purchase: it seems to the buyer that he will pay less.
Why is there so much naturalism in the film?
Everything is simple here: physiology is something that cannot or is difficult to fake, in contrast to visual images and higher matters. If love, friendship, and creativity are imitation and rebellion is a hallucination, then the only way to feel connected to reality is to feel your body.
Why did Octave do this to Sophie?
Octave’s relationship with Sophie is as strange as everything in his life: it seems that he loves her, seems to be suffering after the breakup, and at the same time, categorically refuses the role of father, upon learning that she is pregnant. But there is no contradiction: Octave is panicky afraid of any responsibility, and even more – the invasion of that very rough reality. Riot can be a toy, but a child is not. The role of a father requires real feelings and actions, and Octave is categorically not capable of such feats. He is too fixated on himself, and others for him are just a projection of his own “Ego” (therefore, he always sees himself in the place of other people).
What is the symbolic meaning of Octave’s flight to the tropics?
The unidentified tropics, where Octave escapes in the “happy” ending, do not just symbolize the earthly paradise: the roots of this image go very deeply, to the works of Rousseau and other philosophers-enlighteners, who created the image of a virtuous “savage” opposing a corrupted civilized man. In his dreams, Octave is cleansed of the urban filth and becomes a happy child of nature.
These allusions, not very accessible to a foreign audience, are understandable to any educated Frenchman (as well as the quote from Voltaire “Everything is for the best in this best of worlds” as an advertising slogan). The play with quotations and philosophical images confirms: “99 Francs” is an original and deep analysis of modern society, to which the emphasized irony makes it especially convincing.