Stories about third parties unwillingly becoming involved in the lives of the people they are secretly listening into is not a new phenomenon. As The Conversation and The Lives of Others have successfully proved, synchronising the protagonist’s unveiling of a story with the audience can work wonderfully. Thomas Kruithof’s first full outing as a director, after the wonderful 2013 short Retention, links him up with French stalwart Francois Cluzet to delve further into the world of secret counter intelligence surveillance with several bloody twists.
We join Cluzet’s Duval, an everyday office clerk, two years on from an overnight alcoholic breakdown in the workplace. Now a year sober, thanks to help from the local Alcoholics Anonymous, but unemployed and out of touch with technical workplace practices, he struggles to get back onto the employment ladder. An unexpected Friday night phone call from a mysterious man called Clement (Podalydes) leads to an enigmatic occupation creating transcripts from tapes of politically oriented phone tappings. When Sara (Rohewacher), a nervous new member of the Alcoholics group appears, he reluctantly becomes her sponsor as they slowly forge an awkward new friendship. Duvel’s new job takes an unpleasant twist with the introduction of Clement’s co-worker Gerfaut (Abkarian) and the sudden discovery that his new employees could be linked to the assassination of a leading foreign businessman.
Cluzet is eternally great with his Dustin Hoffman looks and the dark energy bubbling under cold eyes. His turn in Untouchable as the grumpy quadriplegic millionaire shot him to fame in his home country (albeit slammed by critics at the time). This time out, he plays a greatly subdued role in Duval, a broken man dealing with his demons through Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and rueing his broken marriage. He silently cries for sympathy from the audience but it’s difficult to genuinely empathise with him, a fact that works well given the subsequent events which put him deeper and deeper into the reticent dealings of underworld politics.
Scribe starts out as a great slow-burner, with DOP Alex Lamarque achieving wonderful results with the sullen lighting and barren settings. The intrigue and tension build delightfully as continuously innovative layers of ambiguity and new characters are thrown into the mix. Unfortunately, the narrative has a sudden jump start around half way through and events are hurried through, which jars against the careful construction of what preceded.
This change of pace is the films ultimate downfall. You ache to see more of Sara and delve into her background and relationship with Duval, but there’s simply no time. Her introduction seems key yet Kruithof pushes her further to the edges as the film rolls on, until she is thrown back into the limelight in the last third. She should be Duval’s grounding in normality yet her presence is transient leaving her feeling generic and underexplored.
It’s pretty infrequent in the days of three-hour superhero films that twenty minutes or so extra running time would be welcome, yet the last half of Scribe just seems too rushed. This throws away the grand psychological build-up of what came before. It’s an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes watching fabulous acting and cinematography but it really lacks the bite of its phone tapping peers.
Dir: Thomas Kruithof
Scr: Thomas Kruithof, Yann Gozlan
Cast: Francois Cluzet, Denis Podalydes, Simon Abkarian, Alba Rohewacher, Sami Bouajila
Prd: Thibault Gast, Matthias Weber
DOP: Alex Lamarque
Music: Gregoire Auger
Run Time: 91 Minutes