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Xavier Giannoli's "In the Beginning" tells the sly comic story, based on an actual incident, of a con man who came to a depressed French industrial town, passed himself off as a project manager and lived off enough credit and good will to get a highway built before he was found out.

The story, then, has elements of "The Music Man," in which a phony bandleader wants to con a town into buying nonexistent musical instruments before finding himself caught up with the town's folks, and "Being There," in which people urgently want to believe in someone despite evidence to the contrary.

This In Competition entry runs 151 minutes. The film whisks by in no time, but its lengthy running time could be a problem when the makers try to secure overseas distribution.

Francois Cluzet brilliantly plays Phillipe Miller, as he calls himself. Phillipe is not your usual movie con artist. He is somewhat shy and awkward, more a listener than a talker. So what happens is that a town desperate for jobs for its idle work force all but talks him into his scheme.

All Phillipe wants to do is take a few kickbacks and hurry out of town. But the look in people's eyes and the respect he gets — a guy just out of prison — from everyone, including its attractive widow mayor (Emmanuelle Devos), force him to stay.

A previous large project in the town stalled over ecological concerns regarding a protected beetle discovered on the site. A new highway would alleviate this problem, so Phillipe rents the equipment, hires a crew and everyone is happy.

Previous work in construction has given him enough expertise that he actually knows what he's doing. But when bills go unpaid and rumors start to fly, he keeps juggling money from those kickbacks and loans a local banker foolishly makes — it's no more than the price of an expensive car, the banker muses — so the work can continue. Meanwhile, Phillipe becomes part of the community and its people and starts to see what might have been had he not wasted time with criminal pursuits. Then, of course, he still is involved in a criminal enterprise, though at the rate he's spending money, he'll see no profit.

The mayor becomes his lover. A maid in his hotel, Monika (musician-poet Soko), a charming and strangely innocent single mom, becomes his right-hand assistant. Her boyfriend, Nicolas (Vincent Rottiers), gets work from him too, but because he also is a thief he soon enough recognizes the con man in Phillipe.

Two ticking clocks hang over the project. One is the agreed-upon date for salary payments; the other is an ex-partner in crime, Abel (a menacing Gerard Depardieu), who comes looking for the guy who robbed him.

Giannoli, who writes and directs, uses his running time to examine the conflicting emotions and motives not only in this con man who falls for his own con but also in the town's people. These are all richly detailed, in-depth characterizations.

Even in Nicolas, the local bad boy, you see that desperate times are pushing his anti-social behavior and with Monika that her optimism is tinged with a suspicion of others earned from experience.

The project foreman (Brice Fournier) pitches in with such enthusiasm that he almost wills the project to be real. And of course the mayor, for whom the con is very personal, sees in Phillipe a good man no one has ever tried to reach.

Thanks to Cluzet and Devos, the story's central relationship and the deception that lies at the heart of it are always credible. There is much emotional danger at every step as each character gets deeper and deeper into a situation whose muddiness is trapping them faster than the asphalt hardening on the highway.

For what is a small, intimate story, the film is rather large as the main set is an entire highway construction project with its considerable trucks and machinery, often working in pouring rain. Perhaps Giannoli is a bit of a con man himself to pull off what looks like a remarkably difficult shoot. (partialdiff)
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