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There are two layers of excitement in Guillaume Canet's Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One). On top of the suspense generated by the raw materials of Harlan Coben's best-seller, there is the fizz of French treatment. Although there is nothing at all mannered about Mr Canet's style, it is very clear that we are watching something other than the American blockbuster that one might have expected. The word for the difference — the quality of the hypothetical American film that the French film does without — is "efficiency," as in "Tell No One is an efficient little thriller." Ne le dis à personne hardly dawdles; but it is not "efficient," either.
It's curious: "efficient" is generally a positive term, but when critics apply it to films one senses a measure of irony, as one does when hearing of "an efficient serial murderer." There is something like relief that a dirty business has been dispatched smoothly and without fuss. But there is no good reason for a film to be efficient. Aside from the horror films that provide ordeal-starved teens with endurance tests, movies are there to be enjoyed. People who can't wait for "The End" (in what film did that title make its last appearance?) probably oughtn't to be in the theatre in the first place. But it does seem aometimes that such people have taken over the movie gatekeeping business.
Efficiency, in an American thriller, dictates that the narrative never depart from the story's taut trajectory. Identities are stripped down until there are no characteristics that don't serve to advance the story. Tangents are not so much pruned as precluded. The idea, presumably, is to mount a relentless juggernaut of suspense whose route is punctuated only by momentary rest-stops in which nothing in particular happens. (These breaks from the action often feature long shots of cars speeding along empty highways, or other equally banal views.)
As a rule, the French don't make movies about suspense. They make movies about people. Ne le dis à personne is stuffed with people being people. While they are never distracting, they're rarely single-minded. Two scenes come to mind. In the first, Hélène (Kristin Scott-Thomas) silently fumes over a decision that her lover, Anne (Marina Hands), made years ago, to guard a terrible secret. Guarding the secret may have been the right thing to do at the time, but it has landed Anne's brother, Alex (François Cluzet), in the hot seat, as a suspect in the murder of his wife. This scene cannot be said to advance the action in any way. But it doesn't seem at all gratuitous, either. It makes us feel that we know Hélène and Anne better, and something about their relationship as well. The actresses, both of them very interesting (pardon my understatement!), know how to use the scene to enrich the film's atmosphere, which in part, of course, is that of a thriller, but which overall is marked by the problem of the re-opened case. All of the principals in Ne le dis à personne are pained by the obligation to revisit a very painful moment in the past, which turns out not to have been resolved.
In the other scene, slighter but certainly amusing in a grimly satisfying way, Alex's lawyer, Maître Feldman (Nathalie Baye), informs the French equivalent of a DA (Eric Savin) that he no longer has a case against her client. It's clear from an earlier scene that the DA and Feldman are professionally hostile, or rather that their mutual hostility is purely professional, and, as such, a matter of role-playing. For the moment, then, we have actors playing people who are acting. This scene does advance the plot a bit, by explaining an alibi that means that Alex cannot have killed Charlotte (Florence Thomassin). But what it's really about is Maître Feldman's complete inability to conceal her satisfaction with her own professional performance. That's what makes it interesting instead of "efficient." As one lawyer shows the other to the door, we're in no hurry for the scene to end.
And then there is the role of Bruno (Gilles Lellouche). Bruno, as a conception, is of all the characters in this film surely the most recognizable to American audiences. A gangster of sorts, and not a very nice guy, he is unswervingly loyal to Alex for the most elemental of reasons: Alex, a pediatrician, has been a big help to Bruno and his hemophiliac son. (The first time that Bruno brought his boy to the hospital, he was thought to have beaten the child, until Alex correctly diagnosed the situation.) Gangsters with occasional hearts of gold are a guilty cinematic pleasure worldwide. What Mr Lellouche brings to the cliché is Bruno's gruff recognition that Alex lives by different standards, always registering the discomfort with these standards that has inspired his life of crime. Such subtlety is not unknown to American movies, but it usually involves the baggage that a black actor is entitled to carry.
Guillaume Canet is a young actor who, I understand, is something of a heartthrob in France. One doesn't expect heartthrobs to turn out films as accomplished as Ne le dis à personne, and if the film's success may be said to flow from its incredibly stellar cast — which includes not one but two of the giants among French supporting actors, André Dusollier and Jean Rochefort, as well as François Berléand, who is almost as huge — then one must still acknowledge Mr Canet's power and the conviction in assembling it. (In another French note, anyone familiar with Andrew Davis's The Fugitive might find it interesting to compare the billings of the actress playing that movie's beautiful wife, Sela Ward, with Marie-Josée Croze's. Ms Croze has even fewer lines of dialgue.)
I hope that Ne le dis à personne will turn out to be, nationwide, the hit that it seems to be here in New York. Hollywood might learn a thing or two about losing enough efficiency to let humanity shine through. (July 2008)
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