French directors have long had a love affair with American crime thrillers: one only need think of the adaptations by such luminaries as Truffaut and Chabrol of books by the likes of Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis and Jim Thompson. The pulpy impulse obviously affects young filmmakers as well, as demonstrated in this convoluted but highly enjoyable sophomore feature by Guillaume Canet, based on Harlan Coben’s best-seller, which was published as recently as 2001 but has the wildly intricate feel of something penned decades earlier. “Tell No One” is actually too clever by half, but also so skillfully played that it carries you breathlessly along for the duration.
Transferred to France, the labyrinthine plot is no less compelling in its new setting than it was in an American one—and, frankly, no more credible either. It centers on an amiable pediatrician, Alex Beck (Francois Cluzet), still grieving the death of his wife Margot (Marie-Josee Croze) eight years earlier. She was abducted and killed, apparently by a serial killer, as she and her husband swam one night at an isolated lake on his family ranch; he was knocked unconscious in the process, but somehow made his way from the water to the shore and survived.
The contemporary part of things kicks in when Beck receives some curious e-mails, their origins shrouded in secrecy, suggesting that his wife might still be alive. Their arrival coincides with the discovery of two bodies buried near the lake where she was attacked and sets off a chain of events in which new corpses begin to pile up and the police, led by one of those sad-faced, truth-loving inspectors beloved in such tales (Francois Berleand), begin to suspect that the good doctor might actually have killed Margot. Soon he’s forced to go on the run—a Hitchcockian “wrong man”—and is pursued not just by the cops but by some mysterious bad guys as well while he still searches desperately for the truth about his wife. Fortunately he has some help on the lam, from Helene (Kristin Scott Thomas), the lesbian lover of his sister Anne (Marina Hands), a champion horse rider. She hires a cagey lawyer (Nathalie Baye) to represent him. Alex also receives more direct aid from the father of one of his patients, a street thug (Gilles Lellouche) who owes him a favor and, as matters prove, is ready to go awfully far to pay off the debt. Others involved in the increasingly complicated business are Margot’s father (Andre Dussollier), a former policeman himself, and a powerful politician (veteran Jean Rochefort), whose son Philippe (Canet himself), also an equestrian, was murdered only shortly before Margot by persons still unknown.
To be perfectly honest, it would be difficult to disentangle all the threads of narrative in “Tell No One”—it’s as tangled as anything Raymond Chandler ever concocted (and he admitted that even he wasn’t clear on who committed one of the murders in “The Big Sleep,” despite having written it!)—though the last reel is largely composed of a “summing up” speech that wouldn’t be out of place in an Agatha Christie novel. And if you try, you’ll probably find that there are some loose ends in the tapestry. The denouement is certainly not one that any viewer could ever predict (though a couple of its elements are telegraphed fairly early on—particularly one involving the presenter of that big final speech).
But the story unspools deftly enough that you’re unlikely to be bothered by such concerns until after the lights come up. Canet proves mostly adept at keeping the action moving while pointing up important clues along the way: certainly he shoots the scene of Beck’s escape from the cops as excitingly as one could hope, and in a realistic fashion that shows how unconvincing similar sequences accomplished with overwrought CGI effects in other movies are by comparison. The nifty widescreen cinematography by Christophe Offenstein and generally sharp editing by Herve De Luze contribute strongly to the mood and pace as well.
And the cast all fill the bill. Cluzet anchors the picture with a portrait of a sympathetic everyman type caught up in something he doesn’t comprehend, while Berleand makes an avuncular gumshoe, Lellouche an attractive bad-boy and Dussollier a suitably grief-stricken father. The women are also top-notch, with Scott Thomas standing out as the supportive Helene, Baye socking across the hard-nosed attorney, and Hands catching the vulnerability of Alex’s sister. Croze has less to do, but she’s suitably enigmatic, as is Rochefort as a man who appears to be untouchable. As for Canet, his on-screen contribution is basically a cameo, but his blandly handsome appearance is perfect for it.
“Tell No One” loses a bit of impetus in the last act, where the explanations necessarily slow matters down. And the decision to lay some pop tunes over the action, music-video style, in the early going is a mistake; the choices are pedestrian and the effect a little silly. But those are minor imperfections in a generally engrossing thriller which, like “North by Northwest,” winds up exactly where you expect but takes a torturously twisted route in getting there.