Rugged French actor Romain Duris came to international attention as charismatic professional relationship hacker Alex Lippi in Heartbreaker, opposite Vanessa Paradis last year. The unconventionally handsome actor has found a cheeky charmer niche it seems as lawyer Paul Exben in Eric Lartigau’s adaptation of Douglas Kennedy’s novel The Big Picture, a drama rather than a comedy this time that allows him to tap into a more serious acting side.
Paul Exben (Duris) is a success story – partner in one of Paris’s most exclusive law firms with respected Anna (Catherine Deneuve), big salary, big house, glamorous wife and two sons. But when he finds out that Sarah (Marina Foïs), his wife, is cheating on him with Grégoire Kremer (Eric Ruf), a local photographer, a rush of blood provokes Paul into a fatal error. Standing over the corpse of his wife’s lover, Paul knows that his perfect life has gone for good. But by assuming the dead man’s identity and fleeing for an isolated part of former Yugoslavia on the beautiful Adriatic coast, Paul gets another shot at being himself and, at last, seeing the big picture.
Even though very European in nature, the first irony is this is an adaptation of a US novel, rather than the other way around – as is more often the case. It’s evolved into an engaging, volatile French tragedy, a love triangle that breathes joie de vivre, passion, dark secrets and impulsive actions. But what starts out as playful and decadent, with Duris very comfortable in the ‘amicable fool’ role we are more familiar with him in, turns into something darker and uglier as forced self-reinvention changes the path of the narrative, which is beautifully paced to take in the stunning scenery – the big picture – along the way.
The second irony is untrained Duris was also on a different life course when director Cédric Klapisch discovered him in the street one day, and cast him in Le péril jeune in 1994. Like his character in this, who takes another’s identity, Duris as Exben as Kremer finds great, overnight success. The bittersweet plight is Exben as Kremer cannot afford to revel in it, for fear of his real identity being exposed. Duris, on the other hand, will find nothing but praise as Exben as he expresses the full, tortured emotions of being in such a dilemma, but with practicality, rather than melodrama, and never allows us to forget Exben’s inner turmoil of the family life lost, or our empathy would also diminish.
This is not a thriller like The Fugitive, but a taut, semi-crime drama about one man’s choices and second chances that is meticulously planned out to cover all possible slip-ups. Hence, when Exben as Kremer hits the road, the journey is as a yet-unknown fugitive going with the flow – not running from the law. There is only one meeting with the police, which is done as a nice twist. Do not expect a Hollywood-style action-mystery. This is not Bourne, but more Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, starring Jack Nicholson, about one man grabbing a chance opportunity to survive the way he feels he should. Events that happen to Exben as Kremer evolve naturally.
The only slightly uneven part of the whole affair is the ending that makes sense in allowing Exben to remain as Kremer, but seems like a totally different film conclusion bolted on. It’s only because we have been pre-conditioned to all Exben’s traits and skills and still see him as a man who has turned bad luck into good that it remains somewhat believable. Indeed, it does allow the Exben film saga to continue – should that be an option.
This is a fitting second film for Duris that expands his acting arsenal, showing him in a tenser scenario, but still allowing that boisterous nature to shine through at moments. The lure of Deneuve in a supporting role, after the raging success of last month’s Potiche, will ensure Duris gets far more deserved attention – and rightly so, as he’s fast proving he has the star quality to carry a film title alone.
By Lisa Giles-Keddie
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