Scribe Review

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Two years after suffering an alcoholic burnout, unemployed accountant Duval (François Cluzet) gratefully accepts a job transcribing surveillance tapes for the curt Clément (Denis Podalydès). But an encounter with the persuasive Gerfaut (Simon Abkarian) lures Duval out of his comfort zone and into the dark heart of a sinister conspiracy.

★★★★★

Uncertain times provide fertile ground for conspiracy movies and French cinema is currently experiencing something of a boom. Joining Alice Winocour's Disorder, Arthur Harari's Dark Inclusion and Julia Ducournau's Raw is Thomas Kruithof's engrossing feature debut, which was co-scripted by Yann Gozlan, who directed the equally intricate Pierre Niney thriller, A Perfect Man (2015). Yet, while Kruithof reflects the global mood at a time of recession, alt-right populism and the mistrust of the mainstream, he clearly takes his stylistic inspiration from those American conspiracy classics that emerged during the post-Watergate period of paranoid introspection, such as Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View (1974) and All the President's Men (1976), and Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor (1975).

A cunningly convoluted thriller keeps both the protagonist and the viewer guessing until the slickly cynical climax.

As is often the case with tales of everymen becoming enmeshed in intrigue, the premise doesn't stand up to close scrutiny. But even Alfred Hitchcock had to tilt the table from time to time and Kruithof deftly sets the tone by delineating the nervous breakdown to which bookkeeper François Cluzet succumbs while pulling an all-nighter in a badly organised office. Two years on, he remains idle and satiates his obsessive-compulsive tendencies with jigsaw puzzles. However, his isolation ends when he befriends Alba Rohrwacher at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and unexpectedly receives a job offer after bumping into old friend Philippe Résimont at a funeral.

Being apolitical and incurious, Cluzet fails to connect the dots between a French presidential election, an African hostage crisis and covert security expert Denis Podalydès detailing him say nothing about his new post, transcribing tapped phone messages on an electric typewriter rather than a hackable computer. He doesn't even ask questions when Simon Abkarian arrives at his sparsely furnished workplace claiming to be Podalydès's go-between and demands that he hands over one of the incriminating cassettes. Indeed, it's only when he participates in both a break-in at the headquarters of the Libyan official he's been eavesdropping on and the murder of a cleaner that Cluzet begins to realise he is out of his depth and that taciturn special agent Sami Bouajila isn't necessarily on his side.

Having taken such care to lay the groundwork, Kruithof and Gozlan stumble slightly in the middle phase before recovering their poise for a shreddingly tense finale. But, while the storyline exploits the odd contrivance, Kruithof's control over the look and feel of the picture is exemplary. Abetted by cinematographer Alex Lamarque and production designer Thierry François, he steadily draws Cluzet out of his everyday environs into an unfamiliar territory that is so full of oblique angles and devoid of colour that it resembles the setting of a 1940s monochrome noir. Grégoire Auger's score reinforces the growing sense of unease, as Cluzet struggles to work out who to trust and the significance of a notebook that Hitchcock aficionados will quickly recognise as a MacGuffin.

Trapped in a nightmare whose machinations he scarcely comprehends, Cluzet is compelling as the washed-up nobody who retains a dangerously deluded self-belief that prompts him to take on a shadowy establishment machine whose power is perpetuated by the ignorance and indifference of the populace. But, while such a scenario couldn't be more timely, given recent events on either side of the Atlantic, this admirably restrained saga lacks the thematic and dramatic depth to unsettle as it perhaps should.

Assiduously controlled and impeccably played, this cunningly convoluted thriller keeps both the protagonist and the viewer guessing until the slickly cynical climax.