In 1989, French critic Raphaël Bassan essayed for La Revue du Cinéma the emergingCinéma du look, a trend identifiable by its punky stylization of the inner-city, slick mise-en-scène and principal themes of sexuality and crime. Over the past few years French cinema has witnessed the beginnings of another movement, including Tell No One (Canet, 2006) and Anything For Her (Cavayé, 2008), which actively resists the garish indulgence of Carax and Besson, and The Big Picture – adapted from a 1997 novel by Douglas Kennedy – is perhaps the defining picture of this current wave. Echoing Antonioni’s The Passenger(1975) in its tale of forged identity and foreign paranoia, the film’s languid pacing, hazy location work and steely male protagonist all suggest a more intimate, realist brand of crime cinema. What a shame then that it’s such an unqualified bore.
Literally translated from the French L’Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie as The Man Who Wanted To Live His Life, Lartigau’s latest boasts a recognizably trashy crime plot about an ordinary man required to cover up the murder of his wife’s lover, but spins it out like an existential puzzle. Paul Exben (Romain Duris) lives a outwardly idyllic life, working at one of Paris’s most exclusive law firms. Ruggedly handsome, he’s the kind of go-getter who likely surfed into an office job straight out of college, but the rug is pulled from Paul’s feet when he learns that his wife is having an affair with a local photographer, Greg (Eric Ruf). A violent tussle leads to a splintered bottle becoming wedged in Greg’s neck, and so our protagonist must clean up the crime scene and remove all evidence. Assuming the man’s identity, Paul then fakes his own death and sets sail for Montenegro, where he plans to become a professional photographer…
The film’s ace card is Duris, whose commanding jawline and enigmatic eyes reveal layers of unwritten character – his face appears like a fractured mosaic, twitching with a hundred different secrets. The actor’s entire presence – the way he visibly processes and evaluates information, or inches through a gallery with clammy agitation – is one of the most compelling in modern cinema, and here he turns airport fiction into an acting masterclass. The character is meant to be a cipher; an enigmatic shell into which the audience can project themselves, asking, what would I do? But Duris lends him even greater depth, realising that the one-dimensional screenplay – which, as the old cliché goes, has more holes than a swiss cheese – can’t sustain our interest over the protracted 114-minute running time.
Indeed, there’s very little else to recommend about The Big Picture. DP Laurent Dailland makes great use of natural light, subtly diluting the palette whenever Paul’s anxieties flare him up like a halogen lamp; his eyes like giveaway embers. Evgueni Galperine also deserves mention for his appropriately downbeat score, which does a fine job of underlining (but never informing) the action. And what kind of critic would I be without mentioning the supporting turns by Catherine Deneuve and Niels Arestrup (an undervalued treasure), who engage despite coasting through the flimsy material? The former is lumbered with a comically misjudged cancer reveal, which reminded me of this classic scene from The Room (Wiseau, 2003), but she walks away with pride intact. Branka Katic is wonderful as Paul’s new editor/lover, but her character remains terminally underdeveloped, meaning that every time the charming actress appears onscreen is a missed opportunity.
Lartigau may have been wiser to halve the middle third and build on the fascinatingly offbeat ending, but his directorial instincts always feel off. We’re left to wonder where Paul will go from this point, and each option is more interesting than the story which has come before. My advice? Revisit The Talented Mr. Ripley (Minghella, 1999). It’s held up brilliantly.
Stars:Romain Duris, Marina Foïs, Niels Arestrup
Runtime: 114 min