Dir: Barbet Schroeder. France. 2008. 105mins.

Oral, written and visual storytelling traditions converge in Inju, The Beast In The Shadow, a duel of wits between two successful novelists - one a media staple, the other a recluse - and the geisha girl with a connection to both men. Along with Roman Polanski’s Frantic, Barbet Schroeder’s tale of obsession and manipulation fits snugly into the niche of jetlag thrillers in which a nice foreigner gets swept up in potentially lethal complications that never let up, generating their own momentum and logic. Opening in France Sept 3 after its Venice premiere, this stylized thriller about a quasi-innocent abroad should find its audience, boosted by international interest in the (freely modified) source material from seminal crime fiction author Edogawa Ranpo.

The film’s first ten minutes cleverly prime viewers for the extravagant developments to follow and establish the central protagonist’s perhaps warranted sense of foreboding.

Anyone who’s ever seen a movie could tell blond-haired, blue-eyed French author Alex Fayard (Magimel) he’s in over his head when he arrives in Kyoto to promote the Japanese translation of his latest bestseller. But, basking in his success and secure in his status as the leading Western authority on enigmatic Japanese author Shundei Oe, Alex is smug and oblivious.

In addition to signing books and appearing on TV, Alex is determined to meet the notoriously secretive Oe, a household name whose bestselling novels tend to let evil triumph by way of envelope-pushing sex and violence. No one has ever met Oe; the self-portrait on all his books is a ghastly oil painting of a scary, slightly disfigured face in garish colours. Alex and Oe share the same publisher and the same thematic predilections although, as he says on a TV programme, Alex believes it is possible for good to triumph over evil.

Ken Honda (Shimaoka), a personable French-speaking staffer at Alex’s Japanese publisher, takes Alex to an exclusive geisha house. There Tamao (Minamoto), renowned for her traditional dancing, performs for the two men. The Frenchman is deeply moved by the show and intrigued by a long scar running down Tamao’s nubile back. Alex is doubly pleased when it turns out Tamao, the daughter of linguists, speaks very good French.

When Tamoa confides in Alex that a spurned suitor from her youth has resurfaced after 15 years to threaten her - and that there may be a connection between her violent ex-boyfriend and author Oe - Alex agrees to do what he can to rescue a damsel in distress. From that moment on, it’s Alex who gets most of the distress. Is there a diabolical mastermind on the loose or does Alex have an overactive imagination’

While the film’s tone suits a frazzled writer’spoint of view- and would no doubt have tickled Schroeder’s hero, Sam Fuller - some viewers may find the proceedings overly convenient or even silly. For, more often than not, the people on screen in contemporary Kyoto behave as if they’re stuck in a pulp novel or a vintage B movie. In conjunction with expedient dialogue and a sometime too obvious score, there’s theatricality to spare here.

Aiming for authenticity in every aspect of Japanese culture, the film-makers make a point of honour of calling what the West knows as ‘geisha’ by the proper term ‘geiko.’

Production companies
SBS Films
La Fabrique de Films
France 2 Cinema

International sales
UGC Int’l
(33) 1 46 40 46 89

Said Ben Said
Verane Frediani
Franck Ribiere

Jean-Armand Bougrelle
Frederique Henri
Barbet Schroeder
based on the book Inju by Edogawa Ranpo

Luciano Tovoli

Production design
Fumio Ogawa

Luc Barnier

Jorge Arriagada

Main cast
Benoit Magimel
Lika Minamoto
Gen Shimaoka
Ryo Ishibashi
Tomonobu Fukui
Kazuki Tsujimoto