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A SECOND LOOK

'Tell No One' on DVD

March 29, 2009|Dennis Lim

A French thriller based on a bestselling American novel, "Tell No One" offers further proof of the French fondness -- perhaps even reverence -- for American popular culture.

It was the French, after all, who elevated Alfred Hitchcock from genre craftsman to master auteur, so it's not entirely surprising that a French filmmaker, Guillaume Canet, would be drawn to this 2001 novel by pulp writer Harlan Coben, which is practically a compendium of Hitchcockian motifs.

"Tell No One," coming to DVD this week, combines the great director's beloved wrong-man scenario (on display in movies from "The 39 Steps" to "North by Northwest") with the central hook of "Vertigo" (a man obsessed with a woman who might or might not be dead), and tosses in a few Hitchcockian red herrings along the way.

The winner of four Cesar awards in 2007, and a sleeper hit here last summer (French producer Luc Besson is planning an American remake), "Tell No One" opens with a brief Edenic prologue that hovers over the rest of the movie. Alex (Francois Cluzet) and his wife and lifelong love, Margot (Marie-Josee Croze), are spending a summer evening with friends. They repair to a lake, a childhood haunt, for a moonlit swim. But things abruptly go awry: They argue; she swims away; he hears a scream; as he runs toward her, he is knocked unconscious.

Eight years later, Alex, a pediatrician, is still tortured by his wife's death: Margot appears to have been the victim of a serial killer who was terrorizing the region. As the anniversary of her murder nears, a series of odd events conspires to reopen his wounds while raising fresh questions about his culpability. A pair of corpses is unearthed near the scene of the crime. On one of them, the cops find a key that leads to a safe-deposit box containing photos of a battered Margot. At the same time, Alex starts receiving mysterious e-mails that suggest Margot might still be alive.

Transposing Coben's story from New York to Paris, Canet (who co-wrote the screenplay) streamlines the narrative somewhat, but there are still enough proliferating subplots and supporting characters here for half a dozen movies. He can't quite escape the problem endemic to mysteries of this sort: While the complications pile up with near-mechanical efficiency, all that knottiness requires a lot of untangling, and the climactic torrent of explanation strains credulity and derails the film's anxious momentum.

But at least until its drawn-out finale, the movie sustains an unpredictable energy, not just from its plot machinations but from the nimble shifts in tone and rhythm. In his second feature as director, Canet shows an aptitude both for moody reverie and propulsive action. One sensational chase sequence, which involves a pileup on the Peripherique roadway that encircles Paris, evokes the street-level realism and matter-of-fact assurance that Paul Greengrass brought to the Jason Bourne movies.

It's perhaps no surprise that Canet, an actor best known here for a supporting role in Danny Boyle's "The Beach" (he's also the boyfriend of Oscar-winning "La Vie en Rose" star Marion Cotillard), has a real knack for casting. At the center is Cluzet, a veteran supporting actor who brings a Dustin Hoffman-ish everyman quality to the beleaguered Alex. His many costars pull off deft character sketches in mostly small parts: Marina Hands, as Alex's sister; Kristin Scott Thomas as her lover and Alex's best friend; Nathalie Baye as his no-nonsense lawyer; Francois Berleand as a police inspector willing to give Alex the benefit of the doubt; Jean Rochefort as a politico possibly involved in the widening conspiracy; and most impressive of all, Croze, who for most of the film has to remain a wholly spectral presence, a memory in flashback or an apparition on the Internet.

In Canet's hands, the story's overpopulated canvas, seemingly a liability, becomes one of its real strengths and pleasures. "Tell No One" isn't a great film. But it's an object lesson in conjuring great moments from what is, in the end, unremarkable material -- a trick many Hollywood genre filmmakers could stand to learn.

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