This is an unusual political/paranoia thriller with a star name and a downbeat, almost abstract setting. It seems to have wrong-footed some reviewers but is certainly worth catching. Thomas Kruithof makes his directorial début with plenty of ideas but struggles a little with a script he has co-written with Yann Gozlan and two other collaborators. There seems to be a flaw in the last third of the narrative, leading to a rushed ending. The star of the film is French actor François Cluzet. He must command a very high fee because the €5 million budget doesn’t necessarily appear on the screen in what is an imaginative but minimalist presentation. The film is set in France but filmed entirely in Belgium, mostly in Brussels, and this gives a strange sense of anonymity to the images. There is funding from Wallonia as well as France. As well as Cluzet, most of the cast are French – apart from the Italian-German Alba Rohrwacher, sister of director Alice.
One issue is the genre categorisation of the film. It begins almost as a Wellesian mystery like The Trial (1962). Cluzet is Duval, an accountant/accounts clerk in his late 50s who has a breakdown at work and two years later is unemployed and divorced, a former alcoholic who has successfully managed a year of abstention. He meets Sara (Alba Rohrwacher) at AA and around the same time receives a job offer which he accepts, needing something to occupy himself. It takes him to an unfurnished and drab apartment in a tower block where he has to transcribe telephone conversations recorded on a series of cassette tapes. His employer, ‘Clément’, distrusts digital technology and Duval is required to use a typewriter and to follow a set of strict rules in his work practice. Clément makes clear that he is conducting surveillance and that he is engaged in ‘protecting France’. Duval says he is non-political – but affirms that he is a patriot. The audience isn’t clear how much Duval understands but we know that he needs, and wants, this job. Some reviewers have likened his situation to that of the Gene Hackman character in Coppola’s The Conversation (1974).
As Duval works conscientiously from 9 to 6 each day in his solitary workspace, it becomes obvious that the material he is transcribing is a phone-tap involving people connected to hostage-taking in Mauritania, the former French colonial possession in West Africa. The plot appears to draw on the real kidnappings in Lebanon in 1986 and the questions surrounding the actions of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac about their release, but places it in the context of a contemporary election campaign by a right-wing French politician that brings it back up to date. Director Kruithof has said that he understands that contemporary spy networks are returning to analogue methods to keep their work secure from cyber attacks and it seems a logical step.
Duval is either slow to realise the import of what he is doing or genuinely engaged in a form of ‘automatic writing’ – which is the intimation of the French title of the film. He simply transcribes the conversations without thinking about what they mean. Inevitably, something goes wrong and Duval finds himself trapped between his boss, French ‘domestic intelligence’ and a third party. By chance, Sara is also involved. It is this predicament which triggers the concluding segment of the narrative – and which some reviewers have claimed is ‘sub-Bourne/Bond’. I think this is an exaggeration. What does happen is that at key moments the seemingly placid Duval acts, decisively but effectively without turning into a superhero.
Cluzet is always worth watching. Here he seems to have put on weight and he inhabits his character effectively. The whole cast is very good and Denis Podalydès as Clément is particularly interesting as the rather unusual employer with the very strict rules. In an interview with Variety, the director describes how he shot scenes in such a way as to involve the audience as much as possible in Duval’s sense of becoming trapped by his task. The cinematography by Alex Lamarque and the score by Grégoire Auger definitely work in this respect. The film in its early stages was known in English as ‘The Eavesdropper’ – which I think would suggest something rather different from the final French title. It’s disappointing that Alba Rohrwacher’s role is simply to allow a variation on Duval’s paranoia by first ‘normalising’ his emotional isolation and then making him vulnerable. She seems to disappear towards the end of the narrative but I may have missed something in the closing scenes.
If you enjoy suspense and mystery, Scribe will entertain you. In the Variety piece above and in other reviews there is a sense that this kind of genre cinema is returning in France. As I was watching it I did wonder whether this could be categorised as a polar the broad generic classification which has in the past included this kind of political thriller. The UK distributor is Arrow who tend to release titles for short cinema runs and then focus on DVD and online. It should be available online now if you’ve missed it in cinemas.
The Country Doctor is another of those solid dramas about social issues that are rarely discussed in mainstream anglophone cinema. In French cinema such a drama can attract a major star and, thanks to regional funding, can be shot in a specific rural setting.
Writer-Director Thomas Lilti is also an experienced medical doctor and this is his second recent script featuring doctors. In Hippocrates (2014) the focus was a hospital, but in this new film it’s a rural practice in Île de France, next to the border with Normandy. Jean-Pierre Werner (François Cluzet) has been the local doctor of the title for at least 20 years. Dedicated to his work and able to handle the enormous range of problems his patients present, Dr Werner is well-respected but not universally loved because he is a little tetchy. Perhaps the break-up of his marriage is the reason.
When Dr Werner is discovered to have a medical problem himself, his consultant not only suggests he could use some help, but actually sends Nathalie Delizia (Marianne Denicourt) to him. Nathalie is a former nurse and a hospital doctor with no experience of general practice. She doesn’t enjoy the hospital work and is keen to learn about rural practice. He resents the intrusion and deliberately sets her difficult tasks. It sounds like a typical genre narrative, perhaps for a romantic comedy. But this is closer to, if not social realism, an observational drama with elements of comedy. Lilti knows about a doctor’s work and he takes us through procedures in detail. I found this fascinating and similar to the Dardennes’ recent The Unknown Girl. Once again, the differences between French (and Belgian) and UK medical practices are revealing – but the similarities of the social problems are also clear. The local mayor might be an over-bearing figure, but he works hard and he recognises that attracting doctors to a rural practice is difficult. Another current issue is the relationship between medicine and social care – a problem across Europe. Lilti has cast a mix of experienced actors and what appear to be non-professionals. Overall, they look and sound like the inhabitants of a French village. Cluzet is his usual professional self and always watchable. Marianne Denicourt is new to me and I thought she was well cast.
Lilti does well to steer clear of using romantic comedy tropes to drive his narrative. That isn’t to say that there isn’t an emotional drama or the possibility of romance, but the focus is more on the range of characters and the social issues. The narrative also had one really surprising sequence. I was puzzled when ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’ started up on the soundtrack and pleasantly surprised by the next scene. This film offers solid entertainment and something to think about – and a genuine alternative to the endless stream of American awards films.