Sunday, August 21, 2011


I've been interested in French cinema since I studied French in grade school. At every level of my schooling, but particularly in high school, my teachers made a point of showing us French films. We watched classics such as Le Ballon Rouge, as well as more recent films such as La Reine Margot, Colonel Chabert, and Chocolat (not the Juliette Binoche/Johnny Depp movie, although I love that film).

French movies have an interesting sensibility. They don't always have the obvious "set 'em up and knock 'em down" feel of American films. They seem overall less concerned with what you think of them, sometimes to the point that American audiences might find them strange or argue that they are badly-made. In contrast, American films have a tendency to feel very polished (even the mediocre ones). You can tell you are watching something that a lot of people (i.e., producers, actors, director, studio) have a stake in.

The tendency of French films to be a bit more naturalistic allows me to lose myself in the story a bit more. This is complemented by the fact that I generally don't know any of the actors. Of course as I watch more French movies this will be the case less and less often, but even if I recognize certain actors (e.g. Gerard Depardieu, Vincent Perez) chances are they haven't been overexposed to the point that I know how many children they have, what religion they practice, etc. In this way, it's almost like seeing a play.

This weekend I watched two French films. The first one I'd like to discuss is Tell No One.

Tell No One is a thriller in the vein of State of Play or The Fugitive. It tells the story of a pediatrician named Alexandre Beck whose life is thrown into chaos eight years after the murder of his wife. When the police discover new evidence that implicates him in the murder, he launches his own investigation in order to clear his name and sort out what really happened on the night of his wife's death.

Full disclosure: I'm not a big fan of thrillers generally speaking. They usually feature characters fighting back against the system in some way and taking the law into their own hands, and those things don't really fit in with my worldview, which dictates that if the police want to frame you, you're fucked. That being said, I would say Tell No One is an above-average thriller. (I liked it about as much as the aforementioned State of Play.)

Some positives: Francois Cluzet, the actor who plays the main character, is actually quite good. He can seem a bit inexpressive at times, but that comes with the genre (the protagonist in a thriller is typically stuck in "determined" mode for 90% of the film). He makes the important moments work, though. There is a scene in the film when he is being questioned by the police about his relationship with his wife, and they keep insinuating that he beat her. I expect most people would agree that when you see someone wrongfully accused of something in a movie - especially something as heinous as spousal abuse - it creates a very intense and very specific type of tension. The tension builds until the police finally out-and-out ask Alexandre if he beat his wife. Reserved to this point, Cluzet snaps at them defiantly, unleashing all the tension of the scene. It was quite well-done, and one example of how Cluzet makes Alexandre a very sympathetic character.

Another actor that does an admirable job is Andre Dussolier as Alexandre's father-in-law. I single him out mainly because he has a scene where he has to give a lot of exposition and he does a good job with it. (This is another reason I generally dislike thrillers: you can always count on a few scenes of some guy explaining the important stuff that actually happened over here while the audience was busy watching the movie over there. It's like a magician explaining a trick to you immediately after he does it, except there typically isn't any skill involved in the execution of the trick.)

One of the big problems with the film is that we don't see enough of the relationship between Alexandre and his wife. While what happens to her is undeniably horrible, we never feel the impact of Alexandre's loss because we really only get one scene with them. As a result, early on, when the film dangles the prospect that Alexandre's wife may have survived the attempt on her life, it's hard to get emotionally invested in the possibility of a reunion.

Finally, I have to say that the requisite explanation ultimately didn't feel very satisfying. We get a lot about a place at which Alexandre's wife worked that we never see, and a whole lot more of a very minor character fucking everyone's lives up by being a pervert. While shady, manipulative characters are a given in the thriller genre, having everyone in the movie be so deeply affected by a minor character's inability to keep it in his pants eight years prior to the action of the film is kind of lame. It might be different if the film had something to say about this type of depraved person, but it really doesn't.

I read that they are producing an American remake of Tell No One. I will be very interested to see how much they change it, and if it's a success. Based on the original I'd have to say the most important thing is casting; if they get some star power behind it, it will be successful.

For now, I give this version of Tell No One a 7 (out of 10).

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