Talking Movies

September 22, 2019

From the Archives: The Serpent

Delving into the pre-Talking Movies archives I find a neglected French film featuring Olga Kurylenko just before Quantum of Solace.

Divorcing photographer Vincent (Attal) is surprised to run into an old classmate Plender (Cornillac) but it is no surprise. Plender is in fact about to destroy his life by a series of cleverly executed frame-ups.

This is a French film which certainly doesn’t conform to stereotype of endless existential debates between philosophising left-bank Parisians. It is in fact distinctly Hitchcockian, most particularly reminiscent of Strangers on a Train, but then this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise as the source material is a novel by English crime writer Ted Lewis. Director Eric Barbier and his co-writer Tran Minh-Nam have fashioned a taut screenplay from that brutal work. Vincent (Yvan Attal) is a divorcing photographer locked in a bitter custody battle with his shrill selfish wife (Minna Haapkyla) who wants to move their young children to Germany. Life couldn’t get much worse…or so you’d think. But Mr Plender (Clovis Cornillac) is about to enter his life, a crooked PI who specialises in setting honey-traps with his accomplice Sofia (Olga Kurylenko) and blackmailing judges and lawyers with the resultant photos.

Imagine a young Ray Winstone and you have some idea of the sheer physical menace that Clovis Cornillac brings to his role as Plender. Plender was a classmate of Vincent’s and slowly we find out their shared dark past. It is one which drives Plender to frame Vincent for the attempted rape of Sofia before he improvises in order to blackmail Vincent with a threat of murder based around a missing body. It would be a pity to give away any more of Plender’s machinations but trust me they’re nasty and exceedingly brilliant as from the outside it looks like Vincent is a paranoid maniac offering delusional conspiracies rather than accept his own guilt. Attal is excellent at conveying the desperation of Vincent as the nightmarish net closes around him. Casino Royale actor Simon Abkarian stands out among the supporting cast as Vincent’s beleaguered friend and attorney Sam who sets out to prove the conspiracy his friend alleges has been directed against him is in fact real.

It’s hilarious to have to say it but the flaw of The Serpent is that it has too good a villain. Plender is as terrifying as Robert Walker’s Bruno in Strangers on a Train and then some. He’s a grade A psychopath of formidable intelligence and resources and the ability to switch on the charm to convince people that Vincent is out of his mind. The vise-like tightening of his plots during the first hour and a quarter is so chilling, implacable and masterful that the process by which our hero attempts to squirm out of them can’t help but feel tagged on. It is like Minority Report, where the reveal of the villain could have led to a shock end but the film instead trundles on for another 30 minutes in search of a happy one. A flawed but very gripping thriller.

3/5

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