Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 15, 2011 11:52 am 
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Another slick French adaptation of a successful American thriller novel, The Big Picture invites comparison with Guillaume Canet's Tell No One. But it can't hold up in such company, even with Romain Duris, Marina Foïs (the director's wife), Catherine Deneuve (who adds glitter to any movie lineup), and Niels Arestrup (a marvellous actor) in the cast. There's a great deal of Duris, who comes to see miscast, and not enough of his costars. Summaries of Douglas Kennedy's book make it sound ridiculously far-fetched, but readers say it's an amazing page-turner. But whether the material was good or not, the francophone copy is a washout. There are moments at the end of this movie when it begins to feel like a wild, picaresque adventure, and that could have been fun. But most of the way it's just botched Patriaia Highsmith. And remarkably slow-moving for a film with so much thriller material in it.

A guy kills another guy, partly by accident, and then assumes his identity. Sounds like Tom Ripley. But if he is a Ripley clone, he's more like the insecure Matt Damon version than the deliciously evil and more truly Highsmithian John Malkovitch one. Paul Exben (Duris) is a terribly successful Paris lawyer, with a very posh suburban house, a wife and two sweet little kids, and a partnership with Catherine Deneuve, who's dying of a disease she refuses to be treated for -- which will get her out of this movie quickly. Viewers of The Big Picture should be so lucky.

The thing is, poor privileged Paul is miserable. So's his wife Sarah (Marina Foïs). She's a frustrated writer, ready to give up trying, and disgusted with Paul because of his low self-image. He's a frustrated photographer. Though the movie wastes a lot of time (which Highsmith would have spent on crimes and excitement) just showing us that Paul's fed up with his life, it's still not altogether clear why such a lucky guy has to hate his whole world and himself so much. His rage does begin to make sense, though, when he discovers that Sarah is having an affair with his friend Greg (Eric Ruf), who, ironically, is a failed photographer. But at least Greg, a trust fund boy, tries to get photography jobs. For Paul photography is just a dream he gave up to become a successful lawyer. He has the fanciest digital photo setup possible but isn't doing anything much with it.

After Paul has a tussle with Greg and accidentally kills him, the Tom Ripley part begins. Paul changes identities with Greg and dumps his body off a boat. Then with his new ID papers he goes off to Croatia, with just a beat-up Nikon and a Leica, and returns to film photography. He just happens to run into the drunken Bartholomé (Arestrup), who just happens to be a magazine editor, and sees and admires Paul's prints. His new editor Ivana (an appealing Branka Katic) also becomes his lover. So all of a sudden Paul's getting featured in a big way in the local press, and a Dubrovnik gallery gives him a big show (actually the work of Magnum photographer Antoine d'Agata.), and the show is going to London, and -- whoa! Wait a minute! All this happens too fast. I didn't believe a minute of it, and neither does Bartholomé -- who at least sees through "Greg's" disguise. Fame obviously won't sit easily with anonymity, and before the wine stains are dry from the gallery opening "Greg" is on the run again. But by then I'm not interested any more, and neither were the writers, apparently. The film soon ends, after a hasty adventure at sea that leaves all the strings dangling. But don't expect a sequel.

Romain Duris may be a big star now in France, but this casting reveals his limitations. His reedy physicality is striking as always, but he still looks like a skinny adolescent, if one with smoker's worry lines. He is usually best in comic action films with a hint of romance, like the recent Heartbreaker. He can project tremendous manic energy and neurotic frustration, which the brilliant Jacques Audiard capitalized on in The Beat My Heart Skipped, Duris' finest serious role to date. He's often fun to watch, but it's a little bit difficult to believe him as a successful lawyer let alone as a deeply frustrated one with great hidden creative skills waiting to be released in a state of desperation and adversity.

So casting was a problem. But before that come the even more essential elements of writing and direction. Eric Lartigau seems like a merely fair-to-middling director whose projects have been well-promoted audience pleasers. His previous film was a high-concept comedy, I Do, about a commitment-averse bachelor. Again he got a big French box office draw to star, Charlotte Gainsbourg. You remember the picture because she was in it.

Lartigau and his collaborators on the screenplay Stéphane Cabel and Laurent de Bartillat cannot possibly have done a good job with the book adaptation. The pacing is bad and the ending is a complete ripoff. There is a moment of pleasure and relief, after a heck of a lot of pointless shots of Duris driving an old Mercedes, when Paul, now Greg, finally gets to Croatia and Niels Arestrup appears, smoking, drinking, and chuckling. But the pleasure is short-lived because Arestrup is wasted.

The French title suggests an odd conception behind this story. L'Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie, The Man Who Wanted to Live His Life. Well, yes, in a sense Paul Exben partly does want to live his life. But which life, and whose? "Exben" soon becomes his ex-name. Highsmith's Ripley books are so wonderful because she never forgets her hero is a villain. He's not just finding himself. The glib pseudo-profundity of The Big Picture's narrative is unconvincing, and its increasingly implausible chain of events fails to sustain our excitement.

The Big Picture/L'Homme qui voulait vivre sa vie debuted at Toronto in September 2010 and opened in Paris November 3. Seen and reviewed as a selection of the 2011 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema in New York presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance March 3-13, and shown at the Walter Reade Theater, The IFC Center, and BAMcinḿatek.

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