'Scribe'

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

The politi­cal thriller genre gets a very timely in­fu­sion of life with Thomas Kruithof's de­but "Scribe," a lean, edgy drama about an out­wardly bland mid­dle-aged fac­to­tum hired to tran­scribe taped con­ver­sa­tions that may or may not have been recorded by the French se­cret ser­vice. Set dur­ing an elec­tion clearly in­tended to elicit par­al­lels with cur­rent right-wing cam­paigns from Ma­rine Le Pen to Don­ald Trump, the film, at one time given the un­wieldy English ti­tle "The Eaves­drop­per," boasts an ace cast and the kind of skill­fully crafted script that keeps au­di­ences tensely guess­ing the out­come un­til the de­li­cious "did that just hap­pen?" de­noue­ment.

The movie is likely to do strong home busi­ness on its Jan­uary open­ing, and should be en­joyed by Fran­cophile art houses world­wide. When we first meet book­keeper Du­val (Fran­cois Cluzet), he's on the verge of a ner­vous break­down, pre­cip­i­tated by a nasty boss and a weak­ness for al­co­hol. Two years later he's a tee­to­talling AA mem­ber, un­em­ployed and need­ing a job, not just for the money but to give his life a sense of struc­ture.

Af­ter a few un­suc­cess­ful in­ter­views, he gets a call from Mr Cle­ment (Denis Po­da­ly­des), propos­ing they meet the next day; in a spare of­fice, Du­val is of­fered a job tran­scrib­ing phone-tapped con­ver­sa­tions which, ac­cord­ing to the coldly in­timidat­ing Cle­ment, are vi­tal to the na­tion's in­ter­ests. The whole set-up is pe­cu­liar: an empty apart­ment has been rented, where Du­val is to go ev­ery work­day strictly be­tween 9 and 6. Each morn­ing num­bered tapes will be wait­ing for him, which he's to tran­scribe on a type­writer, not a com­puter, so there's no risk of hack­ing.

Du­val protests he's not the right per­son for the job, but Cle­ment coun­ters he's ideal, and so he seems: older, not es­pe­cially adapted to com­puter sys­tems, apo­lit­i­cal, lives alone, and has no friends out­side of AA. Be­sides, he needs the work, so he al­lows him­self to think that per­haps Cle­ment is part of French na­tional se­cu­rity. Du­val de­vel­ops a rou­tine mind­lessly typ­ing out the phone con­ver­sa­tions un­til he hears what seems to be the mur­der of a Libyan busi­ness­man act­ing as go­b­e­tween with the gov­ern­ment to re­lease some French hostages.

Shaken, he wants to throw in the towel, but sud­denly Cle­ment's lackey Ger­faut (Si­mon Abkar­ian) shows up, reck­lessly run­ning his mouth and lit­er­ally strong-arm­ing Du­val into break­ing into the of­fices of the Libyan's lawyers to steal note­books meant to con­tain im­por­tant in­for­ma­tion. The op­er­a­tion is a fail­ure, Ger­faut kills the jan­i­tor, and the next day the trau­ma­tized Du­val is in­ter­ro­gated by Ma­jor Labarthe (Sami Boua­jila) from the Se­cret Ser­vice. In the man­ner of the best politi­cal thrillers, Du­val is sucked into a night­mare of un­cer­tain loyalties, forced to play sides against each other in a game he doesn't un­der­stand.

The mild-man­nered book­keeper with a frag­ile core must de­velop a steely quick-wit­ted­ness, es­pe­cially af­ter his AA buddy Sara (Alba Rohrwacher) is threat­ened. As a char­ac­ter, Sara is al­most su­per­flu­ous, patently de­signed to pro­vide Du­val with a slightly more de­vel­oped emo­tional tra­jec­tory, and Rohrwacher, giv­ing life to the weak­est plot point, has lit­tle to do of any con­se­quence. Oth­er­wise, the cat-and-mouse game be­comes in­creas­ingly grip­ping as view­ers put the pieces of the puz­zle to­gether one step ahead of Du­val him­self un­til the corker of an end­ing. In the back­drop - but not so far back - is an elec­tion cam­paign in which con­ser­va­tive can­di­date Philippe Cha­la­m­ont touts his slo­gan "France is back."

Surely it's no co­in­ci­dence that the phrase has a sim­i­lar ring to "Make Amer­ica Great Again" (though such na­tivist mantras are the stock-in-trade of all right-wingers). Nor is it likely to be mere chance that the hostage sit­u­a­tion re­ferred to, on the eve of an elec­tion, re­calls the 1979 hostage cri­sis when Ron­ald Rea­gan was cam­paign­ing against Jimmy Carter. One of the strengths of "Scribe" is how it plays on the no­tion that con­spir­acy the­o­ries don't al­ways have to be far­fetched, bring­ing a fright­en­ing plau­si­bil­ity to the film's deadly game of ma­nip­u­la­tion.

Du­val's age is a nice de­tail, mak­ing the chain of events far more be­liev­able than if he were some young of­fice worker with a drink­ing prob­lem: Cluzet's lived-in mien al­lows the char­ac­ter cred­i­bil­ity as well as depth, word­lessly adding lay­ers not spelled out in the tight screen­play, cowrit­ten by the di­rec­tor and Yann Go­zlan (who de­liv­ered an­other en­joy­able thriller last year, with "A Per­fect Man"). In his first fea­ture, Kruithof boldly ex­hibits a fine sense of con­trol and a ma­ture un­der­stand­ing of how to build scenes. Vi­su­als are uni­formly crisp, suit­ably cold when re­quired, and matched by ace edit­ing.

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