The Key

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PARIS -- The huge local success last year of "Tell No One" has encouraged French filmmakers to develop more thriller projects.

Guillaume Nicloux, already known for peculiar crime stories (such as "Le Poulpe" in 1998 and "A Private Affair" in 2002) offers the very actor-director of "Tell No One" -- Guillaume Canet -- the main part in this gloomy film that navigates among the codes of film noir, detective story and family drama. The impressive cast, bringing together famous French actors of various generations as well as the father-and-son couple of "Tell No One," could open European markets to the film, but U.S. distribution is uncertain.

"The Key" focuses on Eric (Canet), a young man in his 30s whose lovely wife (Marie Gillain) wants a baby. As he never knew his father, Eric is reluctant to become one. But it just happens that his father enters his life unexpectedly when a man calls to announce his death. The voice also asks Eric to come by and collect his father's ashes. It's the beginning of a nightmare for the young man, drawn into a situation involving thieves, a network of drug dealers and untold secrets going back to his father's youth and his own birth.

Two layers of time intertwine: The contemporary crime story alternates with a long flashback explaining the source of the trouble Eric has gotten into. The past story, set in the 1970s, involves physical and moral violence, which gives the whole film a sordid atmosphere.

Nicloux certainly can create ambiance: The desolate landscapes with the use of close-ups, the camera always moving and an imaginative supporting cast stir audience interest. But the story lurches in too many directions, and the secrets behind the crimes become too obvious and just not that intriguing.

Only the cast justifies watching "The Key." Canet has never been very expressive -- he seems satisfied with his physical engagement in films -- but the two female leads, Gillain and Vanessa Paradis, deliver subtle performances. Behind her character's apparent gentleness, Gillain reveals the hidden wounds of a perfect housewife. Paradis enjoys one of her best roles as a fragile and moving junkie whose path crosses that of Eric.

Josiane Balasko and Thierry Lhermitte play two characters they have impersonated in previous films by Nicloux: Balasko is the same depressed cop as in "Hanging Offense" (2003), while Lhermitte adds the final touch to the private eye of "A Private Affair." Both bring a melancholic touch to an otherwise curt film. As for Jean Rochefort, he is as brilliant as ever, obviously taking much pleasure in playing a pure villain.

THE KEY
Les Films de la Suane, M6 Films, Mandarin Films
Credits:
Director: Guillaume Nicloux
Screenwriters: Pierre Trividic, Guillaume Nicloux
Producers: Philippe Rousselet, Frederic Bourboulon
Director of photography: Christophe Offenstein
Production designer: Olivier Radot
Costume designer: Anais Romand
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Cast:
Eric Vincent: Guillaume Canet
Audrey: Marie Gillain
Cecile: Vanessa Paradis
Michele Varin: Josiane Balasko
Francois Maneri: Thierry Lhermitte
Joseph Arp: Jean Rochefort
Running time -- 115 minutes
No MPAA rating
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