In my recent review of Shanghai Express (1932) I complained about the largely stagnant way in which American films are typically divided. For the most part, they fall into two camps. One is the generically insensitive, uninspired junk food, seemingly processed in a factory by a board of people who moonlight as presidential candidate advisers and aides. In other words, they're none too bright, and their opinions are marinated in cynicism and lowest-common-denominator logic. A sizable number of these are harmless enough while others are intolerably dull and insipid. The other is the high-mindedly aspirational, formally artistic films, a decent number of which can be just as successful as they aim to be while many others fall flat, feel fundamentally shallow despite their outwardly trappings and comport themselves in a stuffy, rigidly, stoically dour manner without much in the way of genuine emotional insight or simple but perfectly pleasant entertainment value. Bridging that gap has become the most sensational accomplishment, and films that strive to work on separate planes simultaneously deserve at least some commendatory applause just for being demonstrably ambitious.
Leave it to the French to still consistently get it right. And most interestingly, Tell No One, a dazzling French import directed by actor-director Guillaume Canet, is based on the work of a New Jersey author. Harlan Coben's mystery novel is adapted here, wholly, into a uniquely French work by Canet. The set-up, like much of the film, is both familiar and distinctive, perhaps because it feels skeletally semblable to so many films you have probably seen in your life when one thinks of other such suspense-mystery films. Yet the pacing is different: methodically exacting, never in an unnecessary hurry, always careful to allow the audience to understand, fully, the importance of the characters--especially when it comes to their importance to one another. Characters who love one another are depicted as having nuanced relationships with one another--and the key relationship, that of a husband and wife, which finds itself enlivened, ever so briefly, in the prologue of the film, is quietly, gently moving because we see beyond the bland archetypes of "husband" and "wife." These two look and sound like they've known each other for a long time (and in this instance they do indeed, as they have been sweethearts since childhood). Their existence exceeds our expectations; their dialogue, taking place while they are nude at a lake after swimming with one another, which includes sweetness and tenderhearted disagreement and understandable, benign argument resulting in a moment of apparent disappointment, meticulously arouses our empathy without the slightest bit of boring manipulation. We're a long way from Firewall.
The pair, Alexandre Arnaud Beck and Margot Beck, are played respectively by Francois Cluzet (this, my first exposure to him) and Marie-Josee Croze (The Barbarian Invasions, Munich, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). First thing's first: yes, Cluzet looks a great deal like a much younger Dustin Hoffman. Unfortunately, Croze's role is not as large as you may have hoped, since her character is presumably murdered a moment after the aforementioned little tiff. Alexandre hears her cries and tries to discover what is happening on the other side of the lack they have visited, but is knocked unconscious for his trouble. A pause. A title card reads "Eight years later." This is usually the place where I groan, "Uh-oh."
Fortunately, despite the fact that so much of the plot feels, on paper, beat for beat like a fairly typical mystery yarn, the narrative framework belies the deeper, more rhapsodically humanistic qualities of the film, which center on Cluzet's performance as Alexandre. A blurb on the poster reads, "Like a cross between Vertigo and The Fugitive!" and there are some similarities to both films, but Tell No One finds its own milieu as a character study first, twisty thriller second. Cluzet's performance as Alexandre is marvelous because he's astonishingly sere, clearly deeply wounded from the loss of his wife, and the answers he seeks are of vital import: as Alexandre commemorates the eight-year anniversary of the loss of his beloved wife, he receives an email that seems to be from her, and so the real mystery presents itself.
The greatest issue that materializes for the filmmakers behind a mystery, no matter how convoluted it is, does not have anything to do with the intricacies of the plot. What matters is what the tale immures in the being of its protagonist. The film's arresting, visually poetic nascence--which features Alexandre's gorgeously evanescent soulmate swimming away from him, her porcelain wet skin glistening in the moonlight, her entrancing pulchritude silently beckoning--establishes precisely the undying love Alexandre has for Margot and Canet (who doubles as a noxious fellow by the name of Philippe Neuville) sincerely investigates the holistic ramifications with abiding grace and wisdom. Croze captures the audience in the early scenes, her performance a glowing beacon that the film must establish with rich conviction. With a little she does a lot, and her presence, albeit brief, serves as an emotional revenant even if her character is not one. When Alexandre is forced to run from the police, he courageously, tenaciously follows the quest of solving the mystery of his wife's case, not merely to clear his name like Dr. Kimble before him, but to find her. This is one aspect of the film's plot that underscores Canet's bold and frequently mesmerizing take on the material as not simple chase thriller but soulfully consequential love story.
Despite the stalwart perseverance of both Cluzet's winning performance and Canet's handling of Alexandre's troubled reservoir of haunted emotional grief, buried under a pained, introverted exterior, the film briefly loses its way in its myriad subplots--all related to Cluzet's search for the truth--and minor characters who remain more plot device than human being. A pair of cops, Alexandre's lawyer (Nathalie Baye), a few underdeveloped baddies--these characters are sacrifices to plot, cogs in the mechanical instrument that guides the narrative to its conclusion, and though the film is in no way egregiously annoying in these departures from the brilliant beating heart of the story, Alexandre, their status as plot points, is unfortunate. For the thriller to remain nimble, minimal time must be utilized in the constructions of these characters, but as a result the film's tautness deprives us of greater resonance when these and other figures meet what should be at least subtly epochal conclusions. As such, the scenes involving these persons often feel slightly labored, and there is a conspicuous period of time in which some viewers will find the film becoming slack, its formerly firm grasp loosening as the plot begins to wind down. It's one of many hurdles to adapting a book and especially one like this.
Mysteries are always puzzles, and this film is finally no different, with a lengthy sequence of exposition revealing the truth. In the end, it's somewhat saddening that Canet had to remain faithful to the novel, offering the questioning members of the audience the answers they must hear, so as to close off the mystery. What exalts this conclusion, however, has little to do with the bare naked truth behind the mystery, and almost everything to do with the intensely recondite compassion. What begins as a sorrowfully crippling determination to hold on to the person you love concludes with a spiritual sublimity that recalls some of the achingly best of Borzage, Carne, Chaplin, Cocteau, Cukor, Malle, Renoir, Truffaut and Wyler, among others. Canet has crafted a brave, elegant and humane film. It is cerebral in its many aromatic machinations and hauntingly potent in its warm loveliness that wisely counts on the resilience of the human heart to be its most gripping plot device.