Arriving a few months after Tell No One, Guillaume Canet's hit transposition of a Harlan Coben suspense bestseller, Eric Barbier's The Serpent performs an equally adept geographic makeover of a novel by late British suspense writer Ted (Get Carter) Lewis, Plender. The story is genre-familiar - a psychotic seeks revenge on a man he holds responsible for past humiliations and traumas - but the acting is solid and the directing edge-of-the-seat effective.
Curiously, the film, which opened in France on January 10, has been summarily dismissed by a local press that was more indulgent with Canet, a fast-rising young star with directing ambitions and an engaging off-screen personality.
Barbier has no such capital of sympathy: he made his debut back in 1991 with an overambitious, megabuck flop, Le Brasier, and has been struggling ever since, with only one other feature (and a telefilm) before this one.
But if The Serpent provides no new wrinkles on a stock thriller theme, it shows that Barbier fully possesses the filmmaking skills he lacked as an overreaching young auteur. The question remains whether he will continue in a commercial groove or reach out again for more ambitious personal films.
Film should play well at home, given the rising commercial stock of its lead players, Ivan Attal and Clovis Cornillac. Its overseas potential will probably be limited to markets where mainstream French fare has an audience.
Attal is Vincent Mandel, a successful fashion photographer who is in the middle of painful divorce and child custody proceedings when he is accused of rape by a model who has turned up for a photo session in place of the agency girl he had asked for.
Without warning, the charge is dropped by the girl, who accidentally falls to her death fleeing his studio. The body disappears, then reappears in the boot of his car, which is rammed from behind in a highway road accident. The other driver turns out to be Joseph Plender (Cornillac), an old high school classmate of Mandel's who now works as a private detective. He obligingly disposes of the body.
But Plender's hidden agenda is blackmail and revenge as he puts the screws on Mandel and offers his sleuthing services to his unsuspecting wife (Haapkyla) in her bid to win the child custody battle. When Mandel's lawyer friend (Abrakian) is murdered by Plender, Mandel, who is now sought by the police, decides to play dirty too.
With the aid of another of Plender's blackmail victims (veteran comic Richard in a cogent straight role), he sets out to turn the tables on Plender.
Barbier's adaptation (written with Tran-Minh Nam) of Lewis's book places the emphasis on melodramatic action rather than moral ambiguities - Mandel never confronts his own guilt about the childhood incident that traumatized Plender - but The Serpent is less freighted with cumbersome backstory than Tell No One. When Plender and Mandel look back at their fraught school days, Barbier foregoes flashbacks and depends on his actors to evoke the past.
As prey/predator tandem, Attal and Cornillac make for a perfect clinch. Attal is as breathlessly harrowed as Tell No One's Francois Cluzet. Cornillac, who has come into his own as a mature lead player after years as a second-stringer, knows how to chill spines without resorting to scenery-chewing theatricality.
Technical credits are excellent, especially Jerome Robert's moody photography and Veronique Lange's taut editing.
France 2 Cinema
French distribution/international sales
Eric Barbier, Tran-Minh Nam
from the novel Plender by Ted Lewis