Le guetteur is a ‘polar‘ or crime film (see Roy’s post on the French polar). The benefit of this term is that it covers all varieties and sub-genres of crime films, eg, police procedural, gangster film, noir, heist film, etc). It has long been one of the staples of the French film industry and, as Roy’s piece argues, they do it pretty well. How does The Lookout stack up against this rich tradition? Well, fair to middling. The cast is mainly French but it is directed by an Italian, Michele Placido (I’m only familiar with his 2005 film, Romanzo Criminale (2005), which shows at least that he can handle action sequences pretty well).
Although a good translation of the word ‘guetteur‘, ‘lookout’ is a bit misleading, suggesting a fairly passive role. In fact, the lookout in question is a ruthless, highly skilled and enterprising criminal. The opening scene takes a typical bank heist gone wrong, and then gives it a fresh twist. Chief Inspector Mattei has received a tip-off that a major heist that is set to go down in Paris and assembles a large team of armed police. However, the police operation is disrupted when a sniper, who is perched some distance away on a rooftop, opens fire on the squad of arresting officers, killing and badly wounding several of them. Mattei’s connections lead him to discover that he is a former soldier and is high on Interpol’s wanted list but there is also a hint of undercover work for the French security services which might make it more difficult to track him down. But Mattei does discover his identity, Kaminski, the heist being shown in flashback as the film actually begins with Mattei interrogating a prisoner in custody. Kaminski refuses at first to answer Mattei’s questions, holding his gaze impassively, but eventually he asks to see his lawyer (with whom he has had a relationship in the past and who is willing to renege on her professional scruples to help her ex for whom she still holds a candle). The fact that Kaminski is played by the co-star and is in custody early in the first act (the film does seem to follow a three-act structure) suggests that he won’t be inside for long. In the initial heist, one of the robbers is badly wounded and (a nod to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) and many other examples of the genre) must be attended by a defrocked doctor. Usually in the genre, this is a minor character but in The Lookout the doctor, Franck, at first a marginal character, turns out to be by far the nastiest criminal in the film and who takes the narrative in the direction of misogynistic horror.
One of film’s main strengths is the terrific set pieces like the one described above which lasts about seven minutes (and another one which ends the film) which rival Heat which it also resembles in terms of plot in the way that it is structured around a central conflict between the leading cop and the leading criminal. In the second act, Mattei is marginalised as the focus of the plot shifts to the criminals falling out with each other and here the screenplay (by Denis Brusseaux and Cédric Melon) seems to have an attention deficit disorder. It wants to do too much and the film becomes overwhelmed for a while. The number of characters – including the thieves, Kaminski’s lawyer, prisoners on detention, a (slightly stereotypical) gypsy, the hard-nosed wife of the wounded gangster – means that there are too many sub-plots (of short duration) and obfuscate the film’s central conflict between Mattei and Kaminski. There is a late-stage revelation (no spoilers) which functions to complicate the backstory between the two key conflicted protagonists which I thought worked quite well.
Casting is one of the film’s strengths, Mattei being played by Daniel Auteuil. He can sometimes seem as if he plays each role in the same register, that of angst-ridden gruffness (except when he plays parts requiring him to speak in his native Southern accent such as in Jean de Florette Jean de Florette or The Well-Digger’s Daughter/Le Puisatier), or even in comedies like Le Placard. But it’s a register he does better than any of his contemporaries. Mathieu Kassovitz, whose career alternates between directing (La haine/Hatred (1995) is his best-known film) and acting, shows that he can hold his own as a downbeat action star.
The creepy Franck is played by Belgian actor Olivier Gourmet whom I have seen mainly as a regular of the Dardenne Brothers (such as Le Fils/The Son in 2002) but he is beginning to have prominent parts in French films and played the leading role in L’exercice de l’État/The Minister (2011). The director has a brief cameo as garage owner with a sideline in supplying crooked passports to the criminal underworld and Fanny Ardant, one of the leading French actors of the last 35 years (she played, for example, in Truffaut’s La femme d’à côté/The Woman Next Door in 1979 and Marion Vernoux’s Les beaux jours/Better Days Ahead this year – who says women over 60 don’t get sexy roles!), has an even briefer one with about 20 seconds of screen time. I wasn’t sure if it was her as the part is uncredited but imdb.com confirms her presence.
Here’s a trailer (no English subs):