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A talentless writer, who’s become a bestselling author after stumbling upon an autobiographical manuscript of a dead man, faces what might be described as the ultimate — and ultimately deadly, for some — sophomore slump in A Perfect Man (Un Homme Ideal). This sleekly assembled second film from French writer-director Yann Gozlan (Captifs) is headlined by Pierre Niney, hot off his recent Cesar win for his transformative performance in the title role of Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent. The young French star here plays an Alain Delon-like part that recalls the icon’s work in 1960s thrillers such as Purple Noon, based on Patricia Highsmith’s first Ripley novel, and Jacques Deray’s La Piscine, especially after Niney’s character has to unexpectedly resort to crime to hide his lies and lack of literary talent from his wealthy in-laws. In France, this beautifully assembled genre item opened last week and is doing solid business, while abroad, some theatrical action as well as possible remake rights should be in the pipeline.
Mathieu Vasseur (Niney) is a solitary, working-class nobody who dreams of becoming a novelist but whose lack of talent forces him to move boxes and furniture all day for a company that’s often asked to empty the houses of dead people without any immediate family. In one such apartment, Mathieu finds a diary of a soldier who fought in Algeria and who clearly prepared and edited his work for publication. Mathieu, frustrated by the refusal of all of France’s major literary houses to publish his own work and clearly aware that the man, like him, has no direct relatives, publishes the diary as the novel Black Sand and finds immediate success. The fact that he’s only 25, and thus wasn’t even born when the Algerian War happened, only makes his story more irresistible for both the press and the literary establishment.
But this is just the set-up for the film, which Gozlan co-wrote with Guillaume Lemans and, for the dialogue, Gregoire Vigneron. Most of A Perfect Man is in fact set three years after this initial success, when Mathieu has moved into the palatial seaside villa of the family of his girlfriend, Alice (Ana Girardot), a beautiful and young literature expert with whom he had an awkward and perfectly played meet-cute at the press launch of Black Sand. What Alice and her parents (Andre Marcon, Valeria Cavalli) don’t know is that Vasseur’s impatient publisher has given him a final ultimatum for a first draft of a new novel after having paid several generous advances, which has Mathieu worried sick about having to deliver something on par with “his” first work. Things become even thornier when someone who knew the dead man starts to blackmail Mathieu, whose association with an ostentatiously rich family thus becomes something of a double-edged sword.
The beauty of the screenplay is the way it smoothly moves all the elements into place to suggest how the very sources of Mathieu’s happiness slowly turn into liabilities. The young man wanted a literary career more than anything, but he never thought about the necessity and, in his case, sheer impossibility of coming up with a second novel, while his connection with Alice’s family is largely based on his “talent,” (it’s extremely unlikely they would have accepted a working-class mover without any success to his name).
Mathieu’s instinct of preservation thus drives him to do rather drastic things to protect his life of luxury and his reputation and it is here that the plot becomes rather Ripley-esque, as one minor criminal act leads to a bigger one in order to cover up the first. However, there’s one major difference, as Highsmith’s amoral creation, at least in the first novel, discovered his only talent was staying one step ahead of the law and potential discovery while Vasseur is an altogether more tragic figure — a literary Salieri (the lead of Peter Shaffer and Milos Forman’s Amadeus) of sorts, able to recognize the brilliance of others but incapable of producing anything of genius himself and forced to continue to pretend that a work that is not his (and that he could’ve never written) is his own.
Because Gozlan sticks very closely to Mathieu’s point of view in order to keep audiences on their toes about a possible discovery at every turn, Alice is never quite developed into a fully rounded character, even though Girardot impresses with her intelligence and warmth. Admittedly, the conception of Alice is somewhat problematic, as she has to be both old enough to be a literary expert — which is why Mathieu falls for her in the first place — yet naïve enough to buy everything her beau tells her to justify his increasingly irrational behavior. The other supporting roles are nicely drawn, with Thibault Vincon especially noteworthy as an ex-boyfriend and family friend of Alice’s who gets a little suspicious a little too early for his own good.
After becoming one of the youngest-ever members of the prestigious Comedie Francaise, as well as headlining his Canal Plus series Casting(s) and holding the title role in hit films such as It Boy and Yves Saint Laurent, Niney has arguably become France’s biggest star in his age bracket. Here, he aces the difficult combination of amorality and perverse fascination that’ll allow audiences to root for his character almost despite his actions. And just when things seem to go way over the top, Gozlan has a blackly ironic twist in store that makes things, if not necessarily credible, at least feel logical in hindsight.
Cyrille Aufort’s traditional score, all driving strings and an increasingly full-bodied piano, helps set the tense tone and atmosphere, while cinematographer Antoine Roch’s fixed widescreen shots, often entirely symmetrical, lend a classical grace and grandeur to the film that befit the luxurious setting and underline what Mathieu stands to lose. The static framing also gives the few moments the camera does move much more weight, such as during a telling point-of-view shot as Mathieu walks up and down his room, anxiously keeping his eyes locked on his computer, which awaits input on a new novel. Roch and Gozlan also pay special attention to the smooth and simultaneously often slippery surfaces in and around the villa and even on Niney’s clean-shaven face, which suggest both the importance of suave good looks on the surface while also foreshadowing a potential fall in the near future.
Production companies: 24 25 Films, WY Productions, TF1 Films Production, Mars Films
Cast: Pierre Niney, Ana Girardot, Andre Marcon, Valeria Cavalli, Thibault Vincon, Marc Barbe, Laurent Greville, Sacha Mijovic
Director: Yann Gozlan
Screenplay: Yann Gozlan, Guillaume Lemans, Gregoire Vigneron
Producers: Wassim Beji, Thibault Gast, Matthias Weber
Director of photography: Antoine Roch
Production designer: Jean-Philippe Moreau
Costume designer: Olivier Ligen
Editor: Gregoire Sivan
Music: Cyrille Aufort
Casting: Brigitte Moidon Arda, Marie de Laubier
No rating, 104 minutes
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