‘The Big Picture’ opens at the Music Box Theater on Friday, December 28.
A long sequence of good ideas that don’t really blend, a pastiche of situations drawn from other, better, movies, Eric Lartigau’s The Big Picture (L’Homme Qui Voulait Vivre Sa Vie) (France, 2010), is, nonetheless, a very intriguing and satisfying slow-motion thriller that emphasizes personal psychology over plot mechanics.
Paul Exben (Romain Duris) is a comfortable and successful lawyer bringing down some major income for his picture-perfect lovely-wife-and-three-darling-kids family. He’s recently moved to a lovely home in the suburbs (best for the children, of course…), and is being groomed to soon inherit the entire law firm, co-founded by his cohort Anne (Catherine Deneuve, in a fleeting appearance). Paul always wanted to be a photographer, but chose the more practical, lucrative law career for his family. His wife, Sarah (Marina Foïs) is an aspiring writer, but she isn’t interested in pursuing that anymore, even though that was one of the rationales for Paul’s career choice – he’d bring in the money, and defer his creative dreams, so that she could be free to indulge hers. But, even with a houseful of small children, they’re getting pretty bored with each other – Sarah’s keeping a pragmatic distance from Paul, who’s always busy anyway, and Paul is becoming more publicly cynical about their prospects.
So it’s particularly punishing when Paul discovers that Sarah is having an affair with their aspiring photographer neighbor, Grégoire Kremer (Eric Ruf), and faster than you can say ‘La Femme Infidèle,’ we have a dead body on our hands. (More will no doubt recall the remake, Unfaithful with Diane Lane and Richard Gere, but Lartigau’s overall visual style, grainy and a little claustrophobic, is far more emulative of Claude Chabrol’s original than the slick ‘Skin-emax’ veneers of Adrian Lyne.) And now it’s a murder thriller. Up until the point that Paul fakes his own death and assumes Grégoire’s identity. Then things peel over into the more psychological territory of Patricia Highsmith, and Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger.
Lartigau is drawing from a lot of other people’s ideas, but you could make the same claim of the Douglas Kennedy novel that Lartigau is adapting. I think Lartigau saw the traps and took on the challenge of making these motifs his own, with mixed results. His most successful approach is the psychological specificity that he’s given the talented Romain Duris to work with. Paul’s business smarts, his devotion to his family, his horror concerning his own later actions, and his elemental love of creation and expression through photography are all fully realized and balanced nicely. Duris has been nailing it in a succession of French dramas and comedies over the last ten or so years – L’Auberge Espagnole, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, Russian Dolls, Paris (as Juliette Binoche’s sick dancer brother) Heartbreaker, and now this. These days, he’s practically unmissable as a leading man. But focusing on Paul, almost exclusively, dilutes the functions of some other otherwise intriguing characters. Marina Foïs as his wife, Sarah, Branka Katic as Ivana, his later photo editor, and Niels Arestrup as a renegade journalist, must struggle with woefully underwritten roles. As good as Duris is, that lack of narrative foundation eventually undermines the credibility we’ve given Duris’ Paul through most of the movie, and the final scenes have an abrupt contrivance that almost takes us out of the film.
On its own, outside of its influences, The Big Picture is a pretty satisfying psychological thriller. Its French title, which translates to The Man Who Wanted To Live His Life, is probably more aptly descriptive of Lartigau’s approach, but I haven’t read the book that gives the film its English name. Your own enjoyment will depend on how much of this you’ve seen before, of course, and it’ll strike many as disappointingly derivative – no doubt that explains its failure to find an American distributor for two years. But it was worth it for me just to see, again, how good Romain Duris is. Here’s hoping he can resist the siren call of Hollywood (his English is very good) and continue to make far more ambitious and intelligent European films such as this.