Movie review: Ordo (2004), based on “Ordo” by Donald Westlake

Note: This is the fourth of four posts on Donald Westlake’s 1977 collection of two novellas, Enough, reprinted by Hard Case Crime as Double Feature. The series covers the novellas and the movies based on them. Links to the other entries in the series are at the bottom of this post.

In 2004, a film adaptation of Donald Westlake’s novella, “Ordo,” was released. It was directed and co-written by Laurence Ferreira Barbosa. A French/Canadian co-production, Ordo was suitably released to DVD in France and Canada. (Note that if you decide to track this down, you will need to find the Canadian release unless you speak French, even if you have a player that can play Region 2 discs, as only the Canadian edition has English subtitles. I found out the hard way.)

The case for the DVD attempts, by its cover art and blurb (“A troubling game of seduction begins.”), to paint Ordo as a neo-noir. It’s not. Rather, it’s a reasonably faithful adaptation of the novella, updated and set in France. In this telling, Ordo is a member of the French Marines rather than an American sailor. Actress Dawn Devayne becomes Louise Sandoli, so while Ordo is still ordinary (“ordinaire,”), there is no obvious implication in the actress’ name as there is in the novella. (I will call Louise “Dawn” in these comments, after the novella.)

The plot is the same. Ordo is shocked to learn that a famous actress is the person he was married to briefly when both were very young. She is so different now, he doesn’t even recognize her in photographs. He sets out to meet her and does. As in the novella, the viewer, with Ordo, studies the character of Dawn–her words, what people say about and around her, her actions, and her environment–to gain an understanding of how the girl became this entirely different woman and to take whatever meaning one can from that.

These elements pulled straight from the novella work fairly well. Where the film occasionally gets off track is when it veers from its source in regards to Ordo’s interactions with Dawn’s world. In the novella, Ordo is intentionally constructed without much of a personality. He’s a working-class stiff. He doesn’t have big dreams, a creative streak, or much of anything else to distinguish him. There is a reason for this, and the film strays from this characterization to its detriment. When Ordinary Ordo begins actively engaging the people in Dawn’s social circle, it moves the focus from Dawn to him, where the focus should not be–the title may be Ordo, but this is a character study of Dawn. This also makes him less sympathetic, because when he does exhibit signs of a personality, he’s a jerk. (This is at its worst in his completely unnecessary second scene with Dawn’s mother.)

The film ultimately ends up in the same place as the novella. As a character study, Ordo is a limited, qualified success. But a character study is pretty much all Ordo is. The audience for such a thing is rather narrow, but if it sounds up your alley, it might be worth a shot–there is a decent chance you will like it, although I doubt you will love it.

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