fri 16/04/2021

The Big Picture | reviews, news & interviews

The Big Picture

The Big Picture

A French thriller that brings class to its American material

Paul (Romain Duris) struggles to turn images into action in this stylish French thriller

There’s no denying that the French have a way with a thriller. Whether it’s the sleek noir of L’appartement, the corner-of-the-eye tension of 2006’s La tourneuse de pages or the altogether more brutal thrills of Cavayé’s recent Pour elle, there’s a quality to the films that sets them apart from even our finest English-language attempts.

There’s no denying that the French have a way with a thriller. Whether it’s the sleek noir of L’appartement, the corner-of-the-eye tension of 2006’s La tourneuse de pages or the altogether more brutal thrills of Cavayé’s recent Pour elle, there’s a quality to the films that sets them apart from even our finest English-language attempts. That French directors should increasingly be looking to American novels for their material seems a rather perverse trend, and one that proved fatal for Guillaume Canet’s Ne le dis à personne. Based on Douglas Kennedy’s novel of the same name, The Big Picture is the latest attempt to marry urgent American plotting and French dramatic sensibility.

Paul Exben (Romain Duris) is a partner in a successful Paris law firm, and lives with his wife Sarah (Marina Foïs, pictured below with Duris) and two decorative children in an interior-designed home in the city. A passion for photography is exiled to his studio, equipped with everything except the presence of Paul himself. When the discovery of Sarah’s infidelity follows close on another personal shock, Paul is startled into violent and irrevocable action. Assuming the identity of his wife’s photographer lover, he fakes his own death and disappears to a forgotten corner of Montenegro.

Rivalling Duris for aesthetic appeal, Laurent Dailland’s cinematography is a star turn

Just as it leaned over the shoulder of The Talented Mr Ripley, so Antonioni’s The Passenger lurks here too. The notion of identity, particularly in this age of digital personas and avatars, remains charged with questions. If you are more truly yourself under an assumed name than your own, which then is the fake? Can changing your name change who you are? Are we the sum of our actions or our ambitions? Rather than rely solely on the (implausible but serviceable) plot, Eric Lartigau’s film wisely places psychology to the fore here, played out in the expressive face of Duris.

The Big Picture, DurisReprising the conflicted character study of The Beat that my Heart Skipped, Duris again proves his watchability, overcoming his rather intrusive good looks to deliver a superbly tense and fragile performance. Denied any expositionary sidekick, we follow Paul’s plans as they develop from moment to moment, never forewarned or given hints as to the turn things might next take.

This reluctant, piecemeal narrative may try the patience of some (and its final hairpin bend feels grafted from a different film) but calibrates its reveal carefully to produce a properly grown-up adventure.

Rivalling Duris for aesthetic appeal, Laurent Dailland’s cinematography is a star turn, echoing the film’s photographic theme in his framed Adriatic landscapes and artful interior shots. It is this dialogue between Paul and his environment that fills in the gaps in The Big Picture’s narrative. It’s a relationship ill served by Kennedy’s rather gimmicky title, and the film’s French alternative – L’homme qui voulait vivre sa vie (The Man Who Wanted to Live his Life) – cuts rather closer to the central issue. As we follow Paul from urban denial to guilty freedom we see photography, at first an alternative to lived action, become itself a catalyst to human involvement and agency.

The Big PictureLartigau’s supporting cast get little screen time, and while Catherine Deneuve (pictured left) makes a characteristic impact in her cameo (as Paul’s business partner Anne) and Foïs packs years of resentment and quiet desperation into her opening scenes, this remains Duris’s film. At its best when philosophising rather than in its laborious plot-mongering, The Big Picture is a credible art-house thriller. Elegant packaging and slick performances from the cast give it a sheen no faithful rendering of Kennedy’s novel could ever have achieved. If it does leave a slight sense of dissatisfaction in its wake then it’s a terribly stylish one – a Gallic shrug and a loaded eyebrow of a finale.

Watch the trailer for The Big Picture

Duris again proves his watchability, overcoming his rather intrusive good looks to deliver a superbly tense and fragile performance

Share this article

Comments

Loved this film. Though Duris was excellent in the lead role and having read the book about 10 years ago, thought the film makers outdid it. Great little thriller.

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters