While the French are perhaps best known to Americans as the inventors of cowardly toast and surrender kisses, in the rest of the world, they are renowned for their slim figures and fine cinema. Recently, that cinema has turned away from its dalliance with hard-core sex and grotesque violence to rejuvenate the Hitchcockian thriller.
Films like Lemming and Roman de Gare follow the master’s twisty anti-formula with extreme precision, showing a technical know-how that had seemed to vanish from Gallic filmmaking during the stab-and-plunge era. Now, with Tell No One, actor-turned-director Guillaume Canet turns his hand to this most difficult genre, with mixed results.
Usually, in one of these sorts of mysteries, the opening third of the film includes a surface story and a set of strange incidents that become increasingly suggestive. Tell No One dispenses with the surface story, and for about 45 minutes, it’s just weird stuff that doesn’t seem to hang together.
In short, you’ll want to take notes. It begins to pay off after that, and the plot becomes more tightly connected until a big clue is given at the 90-minute mark, and then, in classic James Bond form, a villain appears and explains everything in a monologue. But it’s a pretty good monologue, and it includes a fair number of tricks, so it doesn’t count as lazy exposition. Nonetheless, Tell No One could have done a better job of creating interest in its first act, even if there is a payout in the end.
François Cluzet stars as Dr. Alexandre Beck. At the start of the film, he and his lovely bride, Margot, go for a midnight swim. Sadly, a ruffian arrives, does some villainy and absconds with Beck’s wife.
The film then jumps ahead eight years and slowly reveals that Beck’s wife was murdered by a serial killer, which is the worst way to be killed, because it’s not nearly as romantic as being killed by your husband. So the police, being French, try to add some zip to Beck’s life by accusing him of the murder.
Which is an odd thing to do eight years after the fact, except that two bodies have been dug out of a shallow grave near where Beck and his wife were attacked, and then, well, a slew of details piles up. Was Margot having an affair? Is this related to the murder of Sen. Gilbert Neuville’s son? Was Margot’s work with underprivileged youth somehow connected to a series of rapes? And who are the mysterious assassins in the windowless van who keep double-parking and killing people?
Also, why is Dr. Beck best friends with his sister’s wife (yes, his sister’s wife)? That one’s never explained. Also, why is the sister’s wife played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who, as far as I know, has never been French? Not that she can’t play French; it’s just weird to see her speaking perfect French with a French accent when she can’t even speak English like a real American.
I guess that’s a quibble. Nonetheless, the confusion does start to abate if you pay close attention and aren’t taken in by the almost endless series of feints and fake-outs, including one that I think happens after the credits roll and you’ve left the theater and are home in bed and the director comes over to your house and says, “Ha! But how was it that Bruno knew where to find
Dr. Beck when the thugs attacked him? It’s because Bruno was in on it all along! Now, sit tight while I fill in an hour’s backstory!”
Then he lectures you on all the missing pieces until you feel sleepy, and then he tucks you in and walks out the door, but what’s that dropping out of his pocket? Is it a note that connects Beck’s sister to a hemophiliac child that Beck saved four years earlier and which gave him license to use the underworld as his personal safety net?
I don’t know. This movie is so full of tricks, lies and deceptions that I was surprised it didn’t end with the words, “I’m John McCain, and I approve this message.” It does have some pretty impressive action sequences, including a foot-chase, something that’s almost vanished from American cinema, probably because American car use has caused us to evolve past the point where we have feet.
So if you want to see a difficult film with good action, a fine performance by Kristin Scott Thomas, a confusing and potentially dull first third and a neat payoff at the end, I’d suggest Tell No One. If you just want a delicious snack, I’d suggest an orange bell pepper dipped in hummus. The choice is yours.