THE BIG PICTURE / L’HOMME QUI VOULAIT VIVRE SA VIE

Glasgow Film Theatre, 27.07.11

The first hour of Eric Lartigau’s The Big Picture is a French thriller straight form the plot of a classic Claude Chabrol film of the 1960’s or early ’70’s, when Chabrol was turning out Hitchcockian thrillers at a rapid pace – two, sometimes three, a year.  Indeed, one of Chabrol’s best, La Femme Infidèle (1969), covers almost exactly the same ground.  In that superior thriller, Charles (Michael Bouquet), a successful business man in Paris, with a wife and child living in the suburbs, begins to suspect his wife, Hélène (Stephanie Audran)  is cheating on him.  He hires a private detective, who confirms his worst fears. Charles confronts the man Hélène is having an affair with and in a crime of passion murders him, before disposing of the body. For a while Charles seems to have got away with it, but eventually the police track him down and the film ends with him being led off by the detectives, leaving his wife and child behind.  

It’s surprising to learn then that the source novel for Eric Lartigau’s European set thriller is in fact an American novel from 1997 by Douglas Kennedy entitled The Big Picture (a title reinstated to the film in English-speaking countries). In the novel, the plot begins in Connecticut, where Ben Barnes lives with his wife and children in a happy marriage and is the partner of a successful law firm. When he learns his wife is having an affair with a local photographer, Ben confronts the man and in the ensuing fight kills him. He disposes of the body, fakes his own death, leaves his family forever and heads out West, where he takes on the identity of the photographer, something he has always wanted to do.

So Chabrol’s Charles and Kennedy’s Ben become Lartigau’s Paul (Romain Duris), a partner in a law firm in Paris, who lives in the suburbs with his wife, Sarah (Marina Foïs), and their two children.  Paul begins to suspect Sarah of cheating on him and soon confirms she is having an affair with their neighbour, Grégoire (Eric Ruf), a local photographer.  Paul confronts Gregoire and in the ensuing scuffle fatally wounds him.  He decides to dispose of the body.  Here, though the two plots go their separate ways and The Big Picture switches to resemble another thriller, Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, filmed in 1997 by Anthony Minghella. And with this start the films problems. Where as Charles thought he could get away with murder and return to his family, Paul realises he cannot, so he fakes his own death, leaves Paris behind and assumes Grégoire’s identity, leaving for rural Hungary and working as a photographer, a dream he had given up pursuing in his previous life.  Unexpected success means his past catches up with him and he is forced to flee again. Having survived being thrown overboard form a ship heading for South America, we leave Paul in Italy, free to start another life all over again.  

A key problem, which the film tries unconvincingly to deal with, is that in the present day, a quick internet search and a little investigation makes it almost impossible for someone to assume another’s identity, especially if that identity is of a moderately successful person (in this case a photographer).  The original Ripley novel was written in 1955,  thereby negating this obstacle, and a similar solution may have helped here.

A more serious problem is the disconnect between the two halves of the film. As with any novel adapted into film there is too much information to be crammed into under two hours, and the discarded elements are felt here. While the Paris half of the story feels right, the Hungary and particularly the final scene fleeing on a tanker ship for South America, feel rushed. There isn’t enough time to fully appreciate Paul’s anguish at leaving his children behind, and once in Hungary he seems to overcome the trauma and find success as a photographer, and find love and friendship once more, in the blink of an eye. Indeed, a couple of thumpingly incongruous rapid montages are used to explain Paul’s motivations as he pictures his children’s future if he was a convicted killer.  Chabrol trusted his audience enough to let them draw their own conclusions about his characters motivations.  Similarly, in a novel where the reader is constantly hearing the thoughts of the principal character it is easier to abandon characters from Ben’s first life.  In the film version it becomes much more of a problem. We have Anne (Catherine Deneuve), Paul’s business partner, who we learn is terminally ill, and of course his wife, Sarah, who are introduced and then abandoned as Paul flees. It’s a waste to lose Deneuve halfway through any film. 

Despite these flaws though, this is a decent thriller, and the French title – literally translating as “The Man Who Wanted to Live His Life” – is far more revealing than the lumpen The Big Picture, and perhaps expresses what Lartigau is more interested in exploring. Paul has given up on his passion for photography to settle with his office job and support his wife and children. It’s that old tale of rediscovering one’s passion in life and art, but with added manslaughter. If you’re going to copy the master of French thrillers, then you may as well do it properly and much of the film’s first half recalls Chabrol’s oeuvre.  The stark office that Paul works in is similar to Charles’s in La Femme Infidèle.  The disposal of the body too, with Paul heaving the weight in a body bag through streets, into a car boot, weighing it down and dumping it in the sea almost identical to the way Charles disposes of his own victim.  It’s all beautifully shot and the cast are exceptionally good. Duris holds the piece together, equally at home as an urban business man in Paris, and the arty photographer in Hungary.  He’s ably supported by (a wasted) cameo from Deneuve and particularly Niels Arestrup as a drunken newspaper editor, Bartholomé.  Following on form his turn in A Prophet (2009, Jacques Audiard) and Farewell (2009, Christian Carion), Arestrup is becoming something of a must in classy French thrillers.

The film’s conclusion wraps everything up hurriedly and too quickly, a smiling Paul free to start over again, showing nothing of the weight of the two lives he has had to leave behind and the love, friends and family he has lost, but, again, there is simply not enough time in film to explore so much that could fit into a novel. However, it’s a well made, suspenseful film with a superb central performance and enough intelligence and intrigue to keep it interesting, and well worth seeking out.

Film Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

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