Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Feb 20, 2016 7:56 am 
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Politics as a deadly game of intellectual manipulation

In French journalist abd crutuc Nicolas Pariser's directorial debut Le grand jeu ("The Great Game"), an elegant, low-keyed political thriller, the game is misdirection and deception in which key players follow Nietsche's advice, "Whatever is profound loves masks." Devious charmer Joseph Paskin (the great André Dusollier, in prime form) "just happens" to run into handsome has-been writer Pierre Blum (Melvil Poupaud) at a casino. Joseph is there to gamble, obviously (or so he says), but Pierre is there for the wedding of his ex-wife. None of this is by chance and Joseph has a use for Pierre. Their conversation is a combination of wit and naiveté. We gradually enter a world we'll never quite understand, where events at the top are all a matter of hidden manipulation, and a writer can make a difference, if properly used. And Joseph, a lawyer of shadowy function who works behind the scenes of power, turns out to have a writing job for Pierre.

It emerges that Pierre wrote a political novel 15 years ago that was much celebrated. He had ties with the extreme left whose leader, however, he detested. He has written nothing since. Pariser gradually explores Pierre's life and experience in interesting ways. The beauty of the film is its use of surprises and sudden shifts. I love a moment when someone bursts out toward Joseph from a corner, glimpsed in the moment before attack, and we cut immediately to an opening at the gallery run by Pierre's ex-wife Caroline (Sophie Cattani).

We witness cynical discussions at the Élysée Palace, the center of French power, where it's said that whoever wins elections, the same clique runs things at the top. In his latest scheme to bring down a top minister, Joseph is warned he's going fatally far. "Your trouble," a minister's aide tells him, "is that you can never stop." He may not be a casino gambler as he pretended, but he has the same kind of addiction to risk.

There is a glamour of secrecy, knowingness, and danger surrounding Joseph, but Pierre has the glamour of the faded golden boy, the handsome loser who once had everything and now lives on the edge of nothing. It tells all that he's just moved into a tiny "chambre de bonne" (a garret) no one knows about and changed his phone number but Joseph leaves a note for him there setting up a meeting.

Joseph explains to Pierre how a book can launch other books, and a plethora of writing on one side can bury writing on the other: more words, he says, can work better than censorship. We're in a very French world where ideas act as Molotov cocktails and a book, one Pierre's hired as a kind of "nègre," a ghost writer, to produce, may foment revolution. It works, but not as planned: the person who warned Joseph was right, and everyone is now in danger, including Joseph, Pierre, Caroline, an artistic leftist young woman Pierre becomes drawn to, Laura (Clémence Poésy), and the group of radical separatists Laura belongs to, among whom Pierre temporarily hides.

Le grand jeu stands out for its intelligence and originality, but while the only-40 Pariser shows impressive maturity, he doesn't quite know how to construct a thriller. Things meander a bit after the book's published, and one's disappointed that Caroline and Laura aren't more interesting, Pierre's rapport with them more electric. And it's unfortunate that Joseph, the most complex figure in the tale, virtually disappears in the later reels. Still, while it makes some sense for Peter Debruge in Variety to say this film suggests "how a sophisticated French helmer might spin the ingredients of a John Grisham-style potboiler," the whole point is that it's a film that only could come out of France. It make me think of a favorite of mine from a decade ago, Emmanuel Bourdieu's Poison Friends/Les amitiés maléfiques (NYFF 2006), about cruel intellectual manipulation and deception among ambitious Sorbonne students, which similarly is smart and exciting in a very French way.

The Great Game/Le Grand jeu, 100 mins., debuted at Locarno (out of competition) Aug. 2015, several other minor festivals; with a theatrical release in France 18 Nov. and reviews were excellent (AlloCiné press rating 3.7/26). Screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center/UniFrance series, Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, its US premiere, showing: Fri., March 4, 2016 6:30 p.m. and Sat. Mar. 5, 2016 at 9:15 p.m.., both times with a Q&A with Nicolas Pariser, Clémence Poésy and Melvil Poupaud.

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