The Big Picture -- Film Review

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TORONTO -- Eric Lartigau's "The Big Picture," a French adaptation of Douglas Kennedy's American novel, accomplishes the trick of capturing the book's essence but changes every superficial and geographical detail. In both, a born photographer becomes an attorney instead, living a life of denial, until a moment of rage changes everything in his life so that he must change his identity and become the man he was meant to be. It's a fascinating twist on the Tom Ripley identity switch in Patricia Highsmith's novel and Anthony Minghella's 1999 film version of "The Talented Mr. Ripley." In both, a crime forces a man to assume a dead man's identity, but here, a man, living an identity false to his true nature, is forced to discover his real talent.

The film, brilliantly cast and making effective use of locations in Paris, Brittany and Montenegro, is as spellbinding as Minghella's film. Romain Duris shoulders the movie by being on camera virtually every moment as a man on the run. The film should clean up in France when released in November and other European territories to follow. And it certainly makes an attractive acquisition title for a North American distributor.

Duris plays Paul Exben, who is living the good life but not enjoying it much. He dearly loves his two young sons, and certainly his job and Paris home affords him all comforts. But his marriage to Sarah (Marina Fois) is cracking up, and he suspects she might be having an affair with a struggling professional photographer, Gregoire (Eric Ruf).

The irony is that Paul always aspired to that profession but instead chose to make money in the law rather than struggle as a photog. A confrontation between Sarah's husband and lover results in Gregoire's death. It isn't entirely Paul's fault, but who will believe him?

Over a number of scenes, Paul manages to dispose of the body, fake his own death and assume Gregoire's identity.

With enough money to live for a while, he drives until he reaches what he believes to be the back of beyond, which the movie only vaguely identifies but notes indicate is a small Montenegro village. He settles in and starts taking shots with his camera. He rejects digital for old-fashioned film, which he develops himself in a makeshift lab.

In a fortuitous encounter, he is befriended -- imposed upon is more like it -- by an older man (Niels Arestrup), a drunken French ex-pat, who collapses that night on his couch, but not before spying some photographs. It turns out the old geezer is a newspaper editor, and soon his photo editor (Branka Katic) is ringing with assignments.

Before Paul can catch his breath, the assignments bring a gallery showing then the possibility of a traveling exhibition. Which means publicity and the threat of exposure to the police.

Thus, "Picture" is in turn a thriller about a man on the run and an intriguing contemplation on the nature of identity and creativity. Why should a tragedy cause this sudden outburst of creativity? Did Paul need another man's guise to discover his hidden talents? How well does anyone know himself?

Duris often looks like a deer caught in headlights; his eyes dart here and there. His body seems to rock, as if buffeted by invisible waves. He is trying to make sense of his abrupt two new careers -- as a photographer and a criminal. Even more amazingly, he is good at both. Only when he shoots does his body become calm.

Similarly, Lartigau and co-writer Laurent de Bartillat keep viewers off balance as the story keeps turning down unexpected avenues and running into interesting new characters. Along with Katic's photo editor, who becomes increasingly important in Paul's life, the characters played by Arestrup, Ruf, Fois and in a small role Catherine Deneuve as Paul's law partner make vivid impressions despite a lack of screen time.

Laurent Dailland's cinematography and hypnotic music by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine load the film with plenty of atmosphere. Then a surprising climax takes you into a dark underbelly of the new Europe, where brutality and immorality still rule.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival
Production: A EuropaCorpTF1 Films Production, CIBY 2000 production with participation of Canal Plus and Cinecinema
Cast: Romain Duris, Marina Fois, Niels Arestrup, Branka Katic, Catherine Deneuve, Eric Ruf
Director: Eric Lartigau
Screenwriters: Eric Lartigau, Laurent de Bartillat
Based on the novel by: Douglas Kennedy
Producer: Pierre-Ange Le Pogam
Director of photography: Laurent Dailland
Production designer: Olivier Radot
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
Costume designer: Anne Schotte
Editor: Juliette Welfling
Sales: EuropaCorp
No rating, 114 minutes
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