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A rich banker’s wife goes missing in pluvial Paris at the start of Iris, a sinuous and sensual thriller from French actor-director Jalil Lespert. Like Paul Verhoeven’s French-language Isabelle Huppert starrer Elle, Iris was supposed to be filmed in English but the combination of sex and ambiguity finally proved too risky or complex for the U.S. market and the project was made in the world’s most famous sanctuary of the sexy art film — that would be France, natch — instead.
The plot of Iris is inspired by (more than directly based on) Hideo Nakata’s little-seen 2000 title Chaos from Japan, another nation that likes to have its kinks and eat them, too. Still most famous as an actor, especially abroad, for his work with Laurent Cantet early in his career, Lespert is already onto his fourth directorial effort here, hot off his most popular film to date, the classy biopic Yves Saint Laurent (not to be confused with Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent). It also is Lespert’s first film as a director in which he co-stars, playing the I’ve-got-it-all banker whose gorgeous girlfriend, played by his Yves Saint Laurent star Charlotte Le Bon, vanishes and whose disappearance is somehow connected to a disheveled car mechanic played by local star Romain Duris.
With the actors’ combined star power plus the promise of some sexy thrills, this should do decent business locally and has some theatrical potential wherever classy, adult genre fare is appreciated.
The film’s first act is composed of three intertwined strands. The first focuses on Max (Duris), a largely silent grease monkey who is behind on his mortgage payments and who’s constantly criticized by his ex-wife for the lousy job he’s doing one the days he’s looking after their young son (Jalis Laleg). The director of Max’s bank, which might soon expropriate him from his modest home and garage, is Antoine (Lespert), a man whose life seems as immaculately groomed as his beard. Except that everything starts to unravel when his wife, the titular Iris (Le Bon), vanishes into thin air after they’ve had lunch at an expensive Paris eatery.
The third interconnected strand looks at Nathalie (Camille Cottin) and Malek (Adel Bencherif), two tough cops who occasionally sleep together even though she has a boyfriend. They will investigate the case of Iris, which initially looks like a straightforward kidnapping case but which turns out to be something a lot more complicated.
Australian screenwriter Andrew Bovell (A Most Wanted Man, Lantana) wrote the original adaptation of the Japanese film, with Lespert and his Saint Laurent co-writer, Jeremie Guez, subsequently tackling the French version of the script. Screenwriter and novelist Guez, now 28, published his first policier, or crime novel, when he was only 22, so his expertise in the genre is especially useful for Lespert, who previously directed two straightforward dramas and a biopic but whose attempt at a genre film is mostly successful.
Strictly in terms of the plot, what happens is deliciously twisty, with motives and events not always what they might seem at first, of course, and the story descends into a lurid web of duplicity and deceit, sex clubs and BDSM. The film alternates noir-ish thriller staples — such as a corpse being buried in the woods or someone trying to hide a body in an apartment when the police suddenly drop by — with moments in which the relationships and behavior of the characters are up for discussion. Seemingly throwaway details, such as the fact that Nathalie and Malek occasionally get it on, later resurface to question or comment on the actions of others, which reinforces the film’s overall compactness.
What keeps the film from transcending its genre mold is the fact that the third act feels somewhat predictable in terms of its plotting and some of the tension dissipates after a major reveal. On the way there, there are a couple of moments — and one sex scene in particular — that make more sense as genre requirements than as things that these characters would necessarily do.
Le Bon is excellent as the mysterious femme fatale of the title, and it’s always a pleasure to see Duris in darker everyman roles (something that audiences responded to in The Big Picture from 2010 but which didn’t turn this year’s Odd Job, which was dumped in the dog days of late August, into a sizeable hit). Lespert is also razor-sharp as the banker who is really the pivot on which the entire story turns, and he cuts a dashing figure as a compromised man of severity and authority who might turn out to have a darker side. Lespert’s direction of the actors is terrific, with the film crackling with both positive and negative chemistry.
After being forced to be stylish on YSL, Lespert here proves he hasn’t forgotten his lessons from that film. Iris was shot by the delightfully named cinematographer Pierre-Yves Bastard, who also shot the lush historical series Versailles, of which Lespert directed two episodes. Here, Bastard is the master of cold colors, overhead shots and canted angles, turning Paris and the French countryside into an inhospitable environment that mirrors the iciness of the characters and their calculated willingness to put their foot down for whatever twisted thing it is they desire.
Production companies: Wy Productions, Nexus Factory
Cast: Romain Duris, Charlotte Le Bon, Jalil Lespert, Camille Cottin, Adel Bencherif, Sophie Verbeek, Helene Barbry, Jalis Laleg
Director: Jalil Lespert
Screenplay: Jalil Lespert, Jeremie Guez, based on a screenplay by Andrew Bovell, inspired by the film Chaos by Hideo Nakata
Producers: Wassim Beji, Sylvain Goldberg, Serge De Poucques
Director of photography: Pierre-Yves Bastard
Production designer: Michel Barthelemy
Costume designer: Isabelle Pannetier
Editor: Mike Fromentin
Music: A Winged Victory for the Sullen
Casting: Juliette Menager
Sales: TF1 International
Not rated, 99 minutes
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