Dir: Nicole Garcia. France 2002. 120 mins.

A slow, sombre drama about a mythomaniac in crisis, the latest film by actress-turned-director Nicole Garcia is a stolid effort that additionally suffers by covering too-familiar material. Its story is fundamentally the same as the one told by Laurent Cantet in his recent L'Emploi du Temps (Time Out). Where Cantet was loosely inspired by the story told in Emmanuel Carrere's non-fiction bestseller L'Adversaire, Garcia sticks closer to the facts, retaining the violent ending that Cantet eschewed. Even so, notwithstanding the two films' narrative similarities, Garcia offers few original insights into her hero's malaise and even less in the way of stylistic verve. The film's outright dullness and mainstream aesthetic makesit less than essential festival programming, and despite a dependably tense, ambiguous central performance by Daniel Auteuil, L'Adversaire has little to commend it to the international box-office either. Its coverage of controversial headline material, however, might give a slight boost to its commercial appeal in France.

Carrere's book is the account of a true story: in January 1993, Jean-Claude Romand murdered his wife, children and parents before trying to kill himself. Romand had claimed for eighteen years to be a successful doctor, but his entire professional identity was invented: he had managed to deceive family and friends with his elaborate and obsessive fabrications. In Garcia's film - "entirely a work of fiction," the director insists - Romand's name is changed to Jean-Marc Faure. Even so, the film's cool, distanced account of Faure's career suggests a dispassionate account of true events, taking full account of real life's disorderly nature, rather than a fully-shaped fictional construct. Faure (Auteuil) is apparently a happy if taciturn family man, the son of a forester in the Jura region; he is the father of two young children and husband to Christine (Geraldine Pailhas). He supposedly has a prestigious job in Switzerland with the World Health Organisation, but in reality has never qualified as a doctor, and spends much of his time driving in his car, adopting the pose of a well-groomed high-flyer. He has also been operating a small-time financial fraud, and secretly having an affair with Marianne (Emmanuelle Devos), the flirtatious divorced wife of acquaintance Remi (Francois Berleand). Little by little, increasing financial pressures and cracks in Faure's deceptive surface bring on psychological tremors, and his only way out seems to be a series of cold-blooded murders.

It is perhaps unfair to compare Garcia's film with Cantet's looser, more economical adaptation of the same source material: ultimately, her worst sin is simply bad timing. But overall, Garcia is far less in control of her material than Cantet. Admittedly, she takes on a more demanding task in the sense that she attempts to convey the wider sprawl of Faure's tangled life, yet she is unable to marshal the material either compellingly or revealingly. She crams in too much - Faure's family life, his uneasy relation to his staid rural parents, his affair with Marianne, and his financial troubles. Garcia tries to shoehorn all of this into a messily-conceived structure: the film starts off by introducing that hackneyed staple, a videotape in which Fabre explains to his family about the mess of his life, but only halfway through the film does she introduce an equally clumsy device, a series of police interviews in which first Marianne, then Fabre's sympathetic friend Luc (Francois Cluzet) give their own accounts of his enigmatic character.

Within this structure, the film comes across as a series of disconnected set pieces but fails to convey the overall pattern to Fabre's disturbed existence. Auteuil is relied on to carry the film with his nervous silences and sudden outbursts, but much of Auteuil's performance of the everyday neurotic bourgeois is over-familiar. Insights into Fabre's character are ultimately banal, especially when placed in the mouths of other characters: "Deep down you're sad and dark," offers Marianne. Garcia seems simply not to realise when an image is too blunt: one image we hardly need to see is a close-up of Faure's empty diary.

Sepulchral atmospherics slow the film to a crawl, with Garcia making strenuous over-use of Angelo Badalamenti's ominous music. Jean-Marc Fabre's photography gives the film a dark, moody sheen, especially effective when Faure hangs around the impersonal environs of the World Health Organisation. But the narrative visits many locations similar to those of Cantet's film, causing an unfortunate sense of dejà vu. In nay case, Garcia has considerably less than Cantet to say either about the fragility of identity or about the crushing pressures of middle-class conformity. There are few dramatic peaks, just a steady crawl through events: even the climactic murders are grindingly slow and dramatically feeble. The film has little else to offer, except for the versatile Emmanuelle Devos who breathes considerable life into the neurotic but forceful Marianne. Otherwise, with its adulterated echoes of Claude Chabrol's acerbic bourgeois dramas, L'Adversaire is an example of contemporary French mainstream drama at its most turgid.

Prod co: Les Films Alain Sarde
Fr dist:
Int'l sales:
Wild Bunch
Alain Sarde
Exec prod:
Christine Gozlon
Jacques Fieschi, Frederic Belier Garcia, Nicole Garcia
S Jean-Marc Fabre
Emmanuelle Castro
Angelo Badalamenti
Prod des:
Veronique Barneoud
Main cast:
Daniel Auteuil, Geraldine Pailhas, François Cluzet, Emmanuelle Devo