Tell No One: That French Mystique

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Francois Cluzet, left, and Kristin Scott Thomas, in Tell No One

One night, years ago, a man and his wife, — childhood sweethearts who remain deeply in love — repair to an isolated lake for a swim and some love-making. At a certain point she slips off the dock for one last dip. After a moment, screams are heard — then an ominous silence. Later, her body — or should we say "a" body — is recovered and identified by her father, who happens to be a policeman. Alex (Francois Cluzet), the husband, is suspected of the crime, but it is pinned on some serial killers who have been operating in the neighborhood. Now, eight years later, Alex, a doctor, receives an email that seems to show that his wife may still be alive.

Question: Can this be true? Another question: Can he find her, rescue himself from his pervasive melancholy and restore order and happiness to his life? Not, it would seem, if the police have anything to say about it. Coincidentally, they begin to take a renewed interest in what is the coldest case in their files. Very soon Alex is running for his life — quite spectacularly so, under the direction of film director Guillaume Canet.

Running and (for that matter) crime solving are not Alex's natural mode. He's a thoughtful, patient man who has, at best, been living an emotional half-life for almost a decade. He has a female friend (Kristin Scott Thomas), though he is guilty and tentative about pursuing that relationship. He maintains an edgy relationship with his wife's parents and he has connections, through his sister, to a very rich man who has a stable of show jumpers, and, as it develops, a dark secret to hide.

There's enough plot in Tell No One to furnish three thrillers, and though the film's action is driven by this complex (and impossible to briefly describe) narrative. The film, a French adaptation of a novel by the American thriller writer Harlan Coben, relies for its seductive power on its characters and their relationships. For example, it's crucial to Alex's fate that, as a doctor, he has paid sympathetic attention to a hemophiliac little boy who is treated routinely by the rest of his hospital's staff. The boy's father is a criminal, whose assistance to Alex when he goes on the run proves vital to his survival.

And talk about running. With the cops in hot pursuit, the doctor has to cross a freeway that surrounds Paris, with hundreds of cars screeching around him. We know all about freeways, don't we? They've been the locus of about a hundred high speed action sequences, always ending in spectacular crashes and conflagrations in American movies. Canet is much more rational in his handling of the sequence — just this lone guy dodging through the traffic, which naturally ends up in a nasty tangle, but not in a big time fireball. The result is a piece in which we retain our identification with the protagonist. It's a nightmare, all right, but always a plausible one.

In the midst of another long, overheated summer at the multiplexes, this slightly subversive thought occurs to me; maybe we should sub-contract most of our thriller business to the French. From Claude Chabrol to Francois Truffaut (and beyond) they've shown a very entertaining respect for American crime and mystery stories. They see that the pressures crime places on otherwise peaceable citizens the opportunity to explore authentic emotions without sacrifice of suspenseful entertainment.

Remember, these are the people whose critical enthusiasm raised Alfred Hitchcock from genre master to world master. Indeed, you could argue that Tell No One is a variant on one of Hitchcock's favorite themes: the running man whose story no one (except us in the audience) believes. These fictions, of course, depend for their success on the French respect for rationalism (and their horror when reason is torn asunder by criminal irrationality). They are also greatly enhanced by the firm, but casually stated, French respect for life's realities. A drama like Tell No One takes place against a background in which ordinary people walk their dogs, take their children to play in the park or share a casual meal — and are utterly astonished when the police sirens sound and desperate characters rush by waving guns.

All right, it's only a mystery movie. But it is a very cool account of a very cold case and when it appears in theater next week — just in time for the July 4 break — I think you'll agree that it is one this summer's most satisfying movie experiences.