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Leave it up to the French to craft a delectable Agatha Christie-style caper whose main characters include a famous literary critic, a deceased best-selling author, his bookworm daughter, an ambitious young publisher and an up-and-coming writer.
In The Mystery of Henri Pick (Le Mystere Henri Pick), all of these suspects converge around a novel, titled The Last Hours of a Love Story, that was inspired by Pushkin and allegedly written by the film’s titular character — a simple country bumpkin who, before he passed away, owned a pizza parlor in a small town off the coast of Brittany. Published after Pick’s death when the manuscript is uncovered in a local library, The Last Hours quickly becomes a sensation in France. But one outspoken intellectual thinks the whole thing is a sham, and, after losing his wife, his job and his prominence due to his disparaging remarks, decides to uncover the truth.
RELEASE DATE Nov 30, 1999
Based on the actual 2016 novel by David Foenkinos — whose books Delicacy and Jalouse were previously brought to the screen — Henri Pick is an easily digestible and highly cultivated whodunit that’s perhaps the very definition of middlebrow, though that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. With the always amusing, always irritated Fabrice Luchini in the lead role and proven dramedy director Remi Bezancon (A Happy Event) at the helm, it’s got the right ingredients to land a solid audience at home, where it’s raked in over 500,000 admissions after two weeks in theaters. Overseas action should be promising, as well: This is the kind of French film that older viewers could flock to.
Set in and around Paris’ publishing scene, Henri Pick is more about what it takes to make a best-seller than it is about literature itself. Whereas in the U.S., being selected for Oprah’s Book Club is perhaps a surefire way to success, in France it’s about being touted by ruthless critics like Jean-Michel Rouche (Luchini), who used to write for Le Figaro and now hosts a TV talk show that can make or break the career of a young author.
This is the situation that budding novelist Frederic Koska (Bastien Bouillon) and his girlfriend Daphne Despero (Alicie Issaz) — Foenkinos goes a little overboard with the names here — initially find themselves in. But when Rouche fails to acknowledge Koska’s first book on live television, the couple retreats to a country house in defeat. There, Daphne, a hungry publishing exec who works at the prestigious company Grasset, makes a curious discovery: The closest town hosts France’s only “Library of Refused Books,” which was inspired by the American author Richard Brautigan and allows failed writers to leave their unpublished work for future reference.
Daphne takes a look inside and comes across the mansucript for The Last Hours of a Love Story, written by the late Henri Pick, otherwise known as the local pizza guy. She starts reading it and realizes she’s stumbled upon a potential masterpiece. A few months later, the book has become a national best-seller, prompted in no small part by the narrative surrounding its discovery, especially the fact that it was penned by an “outsider author” who apparently wrote in the back of his pizzeria.
It’s the kind of success story the public laps up, and one that Rouche doesn’t buy into. Attacking Pick’s widow (Josiane Stoleru) on his show, the Parisian snob is quickly fired from his network and dumped by his wife, who claims The Last Hours changed her life. Now Rouche is more determined than ever to solve the mystery, tracing Pick’s footsteps all the way out to Brittany, where he crosses paths with the author’s daughter, Josephine (Camille Cottin), who happens to be a major bookworm herself.
Bezancon and regular co-writer Vanessa Portal deliver all the exposition in a fun and fluid manner before the mystery kicks in once Rouche arrives in the countryside. At that point, Henri Pick becomes a veritable guessing game where both viewer and book critic try to figure out who could have penned the novel, if it wasn’t Pick himself. Lots of false leads and clues are tossed out, with references to Pushkin, Dostoevsky and other major Russian authors, not to mention Proust and a few Frenchies — including a clever bit where Rouche mimics the style of Marguerite Duras — before the would-be detective hones in on the most likely culprits.
The resolution, when it finally comes, can seem like a letdown, though it also provides a sharp critique of France’s crowded literary scene, where too many books are published and talent is perhaps less important nowadays than marketability. Along the way, Rouche also learns to be a little more humble and open-minded, even if he never dares renounce his own critical instincts. (He also strikes up a possible romance with Josephine, in the film’s least convincing subplot.)
Luchini, who got his start with Eric Rohmer and is famous in France for his stage readings of Baudelaire, Hugo, Celine and other great authors, is excellent here as an arrogant erudite who may have been right about Pick all along, even if we’re sort of hoping otherwise. Cottin and the rest of the cast are fine, while slick cinematography, particularly all the Breton location shooting, and a playful score round out a polished package. Kudos go to the writers for coming up with a few excellent refused book titles, especially the rather perfect Masturbation and Sushi.
Production companies: Mandarin Production, Gaumont, France 2 Cinema, Scope Pictures
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Camille Cottin, Alice Isaaz, Bastien Bouillon, Josiane Stoleru
Director: Remi Bezancon
Screenwriters: Vanessa Portal, Remi Bezancon, based on the novel by David Foenkinos
Producers: Isabelle Grellat, Eric Altmayer, Nicolas Altmayer
Director of photography: Antoine Monod
Production designer: Maamar Ech-Cheikh
Costume designer: Marie-Laure Lasson
Editor: Valerie Deseine
Composer: Laurent Perez del Mar
Casting director: Nadia Nataf
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