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.
For some reason that is beyond me, the British seem to be quite willing to mock Belgium. “Name 10 famous Belgians” is a tired old joke. I’m not sure how much of this prejudice is behind the generally negative reception of the Belgian drama series Salamander now airing on Saturday nights in BBC4’s ‘euro drama’ slot. I’ve watched the first four of 12 x 45 mins episodes and I’m not going to rush to judgment at this stage. I’m certainly going to ‘read’ the serial seriously over its full length but it is worth making a few initial observations.
‘Salamander’ is revealed to be some form of secret cabal operating within the Belgian establishment. In the opening episode a well-executed robbery at a private bank leads to potential exposure for the members of Salamander when their safety deposit boxes are opened and papers taken. A Brussels detective is tipped off that a bank robbery has occurred somewhere in the city. He begins to investigate but it soon becomes clear that the authorities want to hush up the crime and the detective finds himself isolated as a ‘wanted man’ when his informer is killed.
The main charge against the serial is that it isn’t The Killing or The Bridge. This is silly for several reasons. First it’s a different genre. I’m not quite sure yet which genres are important but the best bet seems to be the conspiracy/paranoia thriller with elements of political drama like House of Cards. Second this is 12 x 45 mins rather than 10 x 60 mins. I think that this is probably because Salamander was made by a Belgian independent (best known for animation as far as I can make out) for a commercial TV channel. 45 mins is a standard length for advertising-led television. The Danish version of this was Those Who Kill and in fact Salamander does follow similar thriller narrative lines.
The more serious charge against Salamander that I’ve noted is that the women in the serial seem too quiescent (and that the central character Inspector Gerardi is too ‘old school’, macho etc.). Again it’s a bit early to make this charge and anyway in Episode 3 we are introduced to a woman who looks like she will be ‘active’ and the Inspector’s own daughter looks like she too may become involved. I have to say that Filip Peeters seems well cast. The one thing that does intrigue me is that this a Flemish language serial, despite being set in Brussels (which I’ve always taken to be Francophone). Given the current state of Belgian politics re the language/culture division I wonder how this will be handled in terms of the conspiracy?
At this point I can’t quite imagine how the remaining eight episodes will work out – and that must be a good thing. I’ll be watching over the next four weekends.