Sunday, July 27, 2008

Tell No One (2008)

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.


nick plowman said...

Yes, yes, you have hit the nail on the head, especially in your last paragraph. I enjoyed the film and all that, it was fine. Nothing special entirely pleasing.

sartre said...

Haven't seen the film but loved your first paragraph observation. Nice.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Nick and Sartre.

The mystery is very convoluted and it's difficult for all of its ins and outs to stay with you, but the emotional poignancy of Cluzet's performance in particular will stay with me, as will Croze's (along with her beauty), so I was completely satisfied.

Sam Juliano said...

I love that "resilience of the human heart" as a deft plot device. And as usual, you have left no stone unturned with this superb analytical treatment of a film that I wished I had liked more. (But I do acknowledge, Alexander that you and others we know are in the majority with the professional concensus, which is quite favorable) And when I first laid eyes on our protagonist, I thought it really was Dustin Hoffmann in a time-warp!!
My own problems, are that the film tied too hard, in a superficial sense to be American, and while much has been said about the film's emotional resonance, I found it hard to feel this much, as the film was too narratively convoluted. (as you yourself do admit both in the review and in follow-up comments to sartre and Nick) I admit that the centerpiece "escape" from the doctor's office was quite entertaining,not to mention a fascinating look at the Arab sub-sector of the city, but the Coban novel was the root of the issues here. But at least the film was intermittantly enagagaing. My own review has it at 2 and a half of 5. But the bottom line, is that your review here, typically is observant, passionate and consumate.
Who could ask for more?

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Sam. I suppose the major difference between you and I in our experiences with this film was that it hit me more emotionally than it did you, for which I credit Canet, Cluzot and Croze (CCC, haha)... I agree that by being as faithful as it is, apparently, to the novel, it has to remain something of a potboiler in its design, but for the most part it felt superior to the usual American take, which would normally have more in the way of "action" and such than this.

Thanks for the astute and discerning response as always, Sam.

Evan Derrick said...

You and I appear to have had opposite reactions on this one, Alexander (which I'm sure you've surmised from reading my piece already).

For me, it was the mystery that trumped the emotional core, and Margot's development at the beginning was not enough to hook me.

However, it's difficult to debate this between ourselves since the our differences are primarily subjective. You were easily caught up in her character and their relationship with one another, I was not. You found the 'mystery' tedious at the end, whereas I found it to be the most enjoyable aspect of the film.

I will say that you probably had the reaction that the filmmakers would have most wanted someone to have. I knew what they were trying to do with the emotional core of the film, but they were not able to hook me on their line before they started reeling everything in.

Daniel G. said...

Really outstanding piece of writing here, Alexander. Of course this is just the norm for CCC, but always impressive nonetheless. I especially like your descriptions of the lake/swimming scenes. All in all, my issues align somewhat with Sam's in that I just thought the plot became too convoluted at the end, despite my affection for Cluzet and Croze. Incidentally, I was never distracted by Cluzet as Hoffman, but I'm ever distracted by Croze's striking similarity to Naomi Watts.

Not to take anything away from your poetic writing, but this might have been my favorite line: "We're a long way from Firewall."

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Evan and Daniel.

Evan, it's interesting that we're both looking at the film from opposite ends. I think a lot of it (perhaps as much as 90%) for me comes down to Cluzet carrying the emotion of having lost his wife and becoming so desperate to find out the truth. It's too bad it didn't work for you emotionally, I hate it when that happens to me or someone else, but it happens.

Daniel, I agree wholeheartedly about the plot becoming excessively convoluted. Right now, I believe i could explain it all, but the fact is, I wouldn't want to bother--so, while I understood it, I found it fairly unengaging on a deeper level than "well, let's see here." I also thought that (SPOILER) the father looked kind of suspicious/off right away, so even on that score his heavy involvement in everything didn't particularly impress or surprise.

Firewall kept resurfacing in my cranium, Daniel, when I was thinking of the generic, uninspired junk that is even vaguely related something like Tell No One, haha. In the end, I just couldn't let it go.

Craig Kennedy said...

Nicely done Alexander.

You're right, we're pretty much on the same page here.

As I've said before, I did buy into the love story and that for me is what carried the film. The thriller elements were a sideline to Cluzet's emotional turmoil.

I'm trying to imagine the inevitable American remake (and I won't have to just imagine it for much longer) and it's going to be awful.

This film was masterfully subtle and character driven.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Craig. We're definitely on just about exactly the same page with Tell No One.

I shudder to think of an American remake. It's already based on an American novel, almost surely refined to its optimum by the French. Why bother? For the "no subtitles!" set, I'm sure.

In spite of shortchanging the thriller aspect of the film, I do think even taken on that score alone it's a more effective thriller than we usually encounter, and a good reason is the subtlety of characterization and subtlety in general as you say, Craig.

I didn't mention him in the review but I rather liked the character of Bruno, and I was pleased to see how he was more than a deus ex machina, and that his reasons for helping Cluzet made so much sense.

Craig Kennedy said...

I fell for how bruno started out as kind of a sketchy character...I thought he might actually be hitting the child, but how cluzet was kind to him and ended up getting helped out by him.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, that was a very finely sketched and believable "arc."

Bruno was also responsible for some very well-executed comic relief. "He says he was bluffing. Mother*******!" It was charming to see a crowd almost entirely made up of senior citizens laughing at that scene.