Duval is a little guy, slaving away while everyone else in the office celebrates, and then he’s handed a glass of champagne and a request for a report the following morning. But none of the files are where they should be, and after a few more drinks, and a fruitless night, he explodes. Two years later he’s been out of work since the incident, he’s a recovering alcoholic, and out of nowhere he’s offered a job. He’s to sit in a room alone, listening to audio cassettes of wiretaps, and transcribe the tapes on an IBM selectric, leaving the papers on the desk at night. Then he hears something worrying, which turns out to be a murder, and suddenly he’s at the centre of a conspiracy. To this point, Scribe suggests any number of films about surveillance in which the unexpected or awkward is overheard or seen, those like The Conversation, Blow Up, Blow Out, or more recently, The Silence Of Others. But there is a crucial difference, in that Duval is not an evesdropper (apparently, the original international title for this film) himself, merely middle man, functioning anonymously in a room otherwise empty but for his cassette player and typewriter.
This is the material of Kafka, or Melville’s ‘Bartleby The Scrivener’, an existential tale of a man lost in the system and faced with a decision about whether to go on or resist. Calling him by just his surname suggests a sort of anonymous everyman status. But the question soon becomes less existential and more political. The typewriter itself recalls other conspiracy films from the past, All The President’s Men or Three Days Of The Condor, and those point the way to where Scribe is actually heading. That path is set up very cleverly, with clues dropped in. There is an election in progress, and a slick candidate whose slogan is ‘La France est la Retour’, a sort of Gallic ‘Make France Great Again’. There is also an ongoing French hostage crisis referred to in the background. Scribe’s title in French is La mécanique de l’ombre, which might be translated as ‘the mechanism of the shadows’. This recalls the TV series Spin, whose French title was similiarly The Men In The Shadow, and signals an ongoing sense of unsettling conspiracy in France. And the real strength of the movie is the way it combines that sense with the more personal shadows hanging over Duval. He’s admittedly apolitical, an office-man whose self collapses when he’s lost his job. He is in that sense, a modern man, an average Jo in France, lost in the shadows.
This is director Thomas Kruithof’s first feature (he also co-wrote the script) and he maintains a firm grip on the mystery. Alex Lamarque shoots the film in a brilliant collage of shadow and blankness; it moves between dark and less dark, and never undercuts the mood. The score by Gregoir Auger is more geared toward the traditional thriller, but works. But because this film is about blank slates which need to be filled it, it revolves around some fine performances: Denis Podalydes is exceptional as Clement, who hires Duval: all control and domination, even when he’s engaged in crucial bartering with the authorities, but especially with Duval. Simon Abkarian is a tremendous contrast, all unleashed menance and energy, alternately affectionate and threatening, as the man who drags Duval deeper into the world of spycraft. They are like two magnets pulling Duval in opposite directions, until a third figure enters the frame, a government man played by Sami Bouajila, all bureaucratic menace, but with a lower energy than the other two.
But the key to the film is Francois Cluzet’s Duval. I wrote when he starred in Tell No One about his being the French Dustin Hoffman, and the comparison is even more telling here. He acts with small movements of the face, little tics, which make the scenes between him and Clement as effective in their way as Hoffman and Olivier in The Marathon Man. As in Tell No One, he has to deal with forces well beyond his control, which in the end comes down to a crucial moment which I won’t give away. The situation is made possible by the addition of a love interest for him, a fellow recovering alcoholic, played with more brilliant understatement by the Italian actress Alba Rohrwacher. But just when she seems to be impinging on Duval’s existential dilemma, she becomes a plot device used to exert pressure on him. How much you wind up liking Scribe will depend on how much you appreciate its resolution. The French October Surprise is something you should not be surprised by, but it basically slides by as if it were inevitable. Duval’s own situation, again, is presented by allusion, which I took as an open-ended question: the idea is that nothing has really changed, nor will it. I might have enjoyed Scribe as a more existential drama, I might have enjoyed it more as an all-out thriller. Yet it is a beautifully constructed conspiracy thriller that, despite its smaller focus, and in an almost throwback way, is successful in its own terms.
Scribe (La Mechanique de l’ombre) France 2016
directed by Thomas Kruithof, written by Kruithof and Yann Gozlan with Marc Syrigas and Aurelie Valat
On general release
Note: this review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets (http://irresistibletargets.blogspot.com)