Friday, August 22, 2008

Tell No One: Spread the word!

Tell No One (2008) • View trailer for Tell No One
4.5 stars (out of five). Unrated, with nudity, sexual content, violence, profanity and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.22.08
Buy DVD: Tell No One • Buy Blu-Ray: Tell No One [Blu-ray]

To employ a phrase I don't get to use nearly often enough, this is one of the best pictures Alfred Hitchcock never made.

French filmmaker Guillaume Canet's riveting adaptation of Harlan Coben's novel, Tell No One, hits the ground running and never lets up. It's a mature, thoughtful and rigorously intelligent thriller that eschews noisy gunfire and car chases in favor of solid character development and a twisty plot that demands one's full attention.
Alex (François Cluzet) watches while his wife, Margot (Marie-Josee Croze),
cuts another notch into the tree that has a carved heart with their initials: a
treasured reminder of yet anothe ryear spent in happily married bliss. Sadly,
this is the deliriously romantic calm before a truly horrific storm; Alex and
Margot are about to be ripped apart in the worst possible way.

That is, alas, the one minor drawback. The subtitles don't capture quite all of the essential dialogue — anybody with the slightest familiarity with French will catch phrases that get left behind in translation — and that forces us American viewers to watch even more carefully.

Ah, but the rewards are worthwhile. Canet guides a solid cast through a meticulously constructed plot that doesn't waste a line of dialogue or even the slightest of background characters.

François Cluzet stars as Dr. Alexandre Beck, a pediatrician introduced with his wife, Margot (Marie-Josee Croze), as they enjoy a lively dinner with friends and family. The following day, Alex and Margot — childhood sweethearts who grew up together and eventually married — enact a familiar ritual, as they find a particular tree in a lakeside forest, and add another notch to the carved heart that carries their initials.

This is followed by a sexy swim, and then a contemplative cuddle on the lake's floating wooden platform.

Margot returns to shore first, and then Alex hears something. He listens, catches what sounds like a cry of alarm, and swims madly back to the dock, only to be beaten unconscious and left to drown.

Fade to black.

Eight years later, Alex has gotten on with his life, although he still desperately misses Margot, murdered that horrible night by a rampaging serial killer. The circumstances remain murky; even with an obvious suspect, the police mistrusted Alex for quite some time, despite his having spent three days in a coma. Although no physical evidence tied him to the crime, his unconscious body was found on the dock ... and nobody can explain how he got out of the water.

Now, like some ghastly resurrected nightmare, Alex is forced to confront the entire incident again: Police have discovered the bodies of two men, killed by gunfire and buried at the lake not far from where Margot's body was found. One carries a key that leads to a safe-deposit box, the contents of which include some damning photos of Margot, at some point prior to her death, and taken after she was beaten badly by ... somebody.

Once again, police suspicion falls on Alex.

But that's not his only problem. Alex receives an e-mail with instructions to log on again at a particular hour and day. He does so and is astonished to see a real-time film clip, taken at the sidewalk exit of a subway, with a woman who appears to be Margot deliberately standing at the head of the crowd; she pauses long enough to be caught on camera. Her face is indistinct, but Alex senses that it really is Margot ... and, stranger yet, that she appears to be roughly eight years older.

Alex isn't the only person viewing the clip; unknown to him, somebody else has tapped into his computer account. (New faces get thrown into the mix so quickly, during this first act, that you can be forgiven for believing these two men are connected with the suddenly revived police investigation. They aren't.)

Alex, who never broadened his social circle after the tragedy, has precious few friends in whom to confide. He tries to press Margot's parents during one of his infrequent visits; they've latched onto his occasional contact as a means of preserving their daughter's memory, but the atmosphere always is uncomfortable and pregnant with stress. They can't help him.

Similarly, Alex doesn't really know what to say to his sister, Anne (an understated Marina Hands); their relationship always has been a bit strained, and Margot's death amplified their mutual wariness. He does better with his best friend, Helene (Kristin Scott-Thomas, once again demonstrating her impeccable French accent), who happens to be in a long-term relationship with Anne.

Helene, at least, is genuinely sympathetic, although she insists that the blurry video is far from conclusive proof of anything.

Events continue to take place, all of them inexorably tightening a web of circumstantial evidence around Alex, until finally he panics.

Then the story really kicks into gear.

The situation is classic Hitchcock: the innocent man on the run, hunted both by the police and ... somebody else. Canet augments the mix by deviously having it both ways; although Alex sure seems blameless, his behavior and reserved attitude can't help raising doubts. Aside from that central question, we're also tantalized by bits and pieces of some huge mystery that seems to revolve around the apparently baffled pediatrician, and the way in which it does — or does not — involve Margot's death.

Cluzet makes a solid protagonist. Although his features resemble a young Dustin Hoffman enough to be briefly distracting, Cluzet quickly establishes his own presence. The twisty story demands a lot from this character: everything from bewilderment and rage to despair and cunning intelligence. But he's unquestionably an ordinary man; Alex's behavior is far from heroic or superhuman.

Indeed, that's what makes him so sympathetic; it's easy to identify with his responses to an environment that becomes increasingly confusing and hostile.

He's matched for thespic subtlety by François Berleand as Levkowich, the detail- oriented cop who leads the charge for Alex's arrest, but then begins to wonder if perhaps all the evidence is a bit too pat. At first little more than an officious man with a badge, Levkowich eventually reveals a wealth of interior quirks and fastidious investigative technique; this film is too grim for lighthearted comparisons to Hercule Poirot or Inspector Maigret, but one wonders if Berleand is an avid reader of such mysteries.

Speaking of grim, the occasional outbursts of violence are breathtaking and horrific: thoroughly nasty acts conducted by stone killers with a detached indifference that makes them truly frightening. One assault has echoes of the lethal attack on Tom Wilkinson in Michael Clayton, due to the calm, unhurried behavior of the baddies.

Although such moments can't help being vivid, we also must admire Canet's attention to detail, and the seeming ease with which he balances the action with quieter — but essential — scenes that work so well toward fleshing out everybody's character: Alex's softer side, as established during his interactions with his young patients, or the obvious love he has for his adorably huge dog (a briard); the disheveled appearance of Alex's home, reflecting the occupant who hasn't moved on in life; the casual intimacy of the relationship between Anne and Helene, demonstrated when the latter steps naked and unconcerned from the shower, in order to use the telephone.

Canet doesn't miss any opportunity to reveal something crucial about somebody, and this extends even to supporting players who never get named. Consider the aura of malevolence that hangs over a T-shirted female thug, despite her remaining mute throughout this story: truly a figure to haunt our nightmares.

Composer Matthieu Chedid improvised his guitar soundtrack while performing in a studio as the completed film unspooled; the resulting music is romantic and suspenseful as required, and smoothly integrated with all the visual elements. Chedid establishes a great mood, which is all the more reason why a trio of English-language pop songs — by Otis Redding, Jeff Buckley and U2 — sounds oddly jarring and intrusive, even though their presence echoes on-screen events.

Filmmakers with a strong sense of craft — with the ability to integrate so many pieces into such a delicious jigsaw puzzle — deserve to be lionized; I felt that way about Joe Wright's handling of Atonement, and Canet deserves equal praise. You'll not soon forget Tell No One, and you'll likely be surprised to discover, as the final scene finally cuts to the closing credits, that you've held your breath for a very long time.

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