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

November 5, 2018

From the Archives: Quantum of Solace

Another dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives pulls up from the depths Daniel Craig’s pointlessly reviled outing; whose problems derive from the strike everybody knew about but affected not to.

Daniel Craig returns as James Bond in Quantum of Solace, which features a lot more action than Casino Royale. It doesn’t quite measure up to its mighty predecessor, but it does offer an intriguing re-invention of Bond’s 1960s foes.

The opening establishes that this is less the talk-talk-bang-bang formula of Casino Royale and more bang-bang-bang-BANG! The opening sequence is an incredibly frantic car-chase, after which we have to put up with the godawful Jack White song and sleazy silhouettes of naked ladies, but then it’s straight into the interrogation of Mr White, the villain Bond caught in the final scene of the last film. This scene features a shock so good it took me 20 minutes to get over it. 20 minutes of action as Bond travels to the Caribbean for a vicious Bourne style fist fight in a bathroom and a boat-chase. It really is surprising just how much action Marc Forster, the director best known for Stranger than Fiction and Finding Neverland, has crammed in here. He only comes unstuck with an aerial dogfight which comes perilously close to returning the franchise to Roger Moore style campiness but just avoids doing so, and only displays art-house leanings with a silent shootout in Vienna wonderfully sound-tracked only by the opera the characters have been attending.

The sheer preponderance of action over meaty drama though makes this film feel like a victim of the writers’ strike. Paul Haggis’ rewrite of the script was infamously delivered mere minutes before the strike began last year and it could have used more character beats, even though there are great unexpected moments throughout. There is an absolutely priceless gag involving Bond’s distaste for cheap accommodation amid many other quotable lines. The CIA is depicted as morally bankrupt, willing to turn a blind eye to any right-wing dictatorship’s human rights abuses if there’s a plentiful supply of cheap oil to be had, while a high-ranking member of the British Government is revealed as a member of Quantum, Haggis’ reinvention of super-villain organisation Spectre. The rights to Spectre are owned by Irish writer/producer Kevin McClory so Haggis has re-imagined Bond’s 1960s foe as a network of ex-spooks and shady businessmen and politicians. This film pays further homage to the 1960s with the death of a major character, a score which evokes the softer, and more sinister, moments of John Barry’s scores, and a desert lair in Bolivia which is pure Ken Adam in its set design.

Mathieu Amalric, a god of French cinema, is slightly underwritten as Quantum villain Dominic Greene but makes his ‘environmental philanthropist’, who’s secretly plotting to seize control of the natural resources of Bolivia, a worthy foe for Bond. Olga Kurylenko, who graduated from taking her top off in French films (Le Serpent) to taking her top off in Hollywood films (Hitman), miserably fails to escape the shadow of Eva Green’s Vesper. Her character has an intriguing back-story but the parallels between her search for vengeance and Bond’s search for closure evaporate due to her inert screen presence.  The best relationship is between M and Bond who develop almost a fraught mother/son bond by the end. Craig is once again magnificent as Bond; physical, but also offering glimpses of the inconsolable grief behind his driven pursuit of Mr Greene. This is a good film and well worth seeing, and the consistently brutal action combined with some clever conceits left unresolved suggest that Craig’s next Bond film may surpass Casino Royale.

3/5

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