Vineyards flow red — with blood — in French-Belgian thriller Thousand Cuts (Le serpent aux milles coupures), in which director Eric Valette’s steely panache counterbalances the convolutions of an overambitious screenplay. Starring Gallic draw Tomer Sisley as an injured fugitive who hides out in a young couple’s isolated farmhouse, this is violent, adults-only fare which should pay its way on French release April 5 — subplots relating to rural racism will give it some topicality in the run-up to the presidential elections later that month — before profitable small-screen exposure. Elsewhere it will prove best suited to late-evening slots at film festivals receptive to vaguely disreputable genre excitements.
Based on a short 2009 novel by the pseudonymous French scribe “DOA,” it’s Valette’s sixth feature — and his first since 2011’s serial-killer drama The Prey. In the interim, he’s been busy on several TV crime series, and this comeback feels very much like a renewed attempt to attract the attention of North American producers. His first trans-Atlantic forays proved somewhat abortive, yielding the near-universally excoriated J-horror remake One Missed Call (2008) — which defied critical scorn to reap so-so business for Warner Bros. — then little-seen, Canada-shot sci-fi shocker Super Hybrid (2010).
Valette’s script, co-written with Herve Albertazzi, is a busy and sometimes confusing affair with a plethora of characters to keep track of. The main location is the large farmhouse occupied by Omar Petit (Cedric Ido), his wife (Erika Sainte) and their cute 4-year-old daughter. The couple have been the target of a sustained campaign of violent racism by locals, offended at the presence of Senegalese-Frenchman Omar in their traditionalist, white-bread midst. They face a more direct threat with the nocturnal arrival of Sisley’s nameless, ruthless, lethal — but, we somehow sense, fundamentally decent — “terrorist.”
Fleeing the cops on his motorcycle, the fugitive is injured by an accident on a country road. This brings him into contact with various representatives of the global criminal underworld who happen to be in the area, with deadly consequences for several of the latter. Further complications ensue when it turns out that one of the deceased is the son of a notorious Colombian narcotics kingpin nicknamed “Triple Zero.” The gangster dispatches two of his trusted personnel to investigate: a lawyer, and a Eurasian hitman played by Chinese star Terence Yin.
Showing up just after the halfway mark, this assassin (nameless, like Sisley’s fugitive) is a wild-card element who elevates proceedings whenever he’s on screen. Lithe, lethal and — as displayed in one tough-to-stomach scene in which he carves up a helpless beauty (Clemence Bretecher) — sadistically talented with a knife, the black-clad assassin with eerie blue eyes inherited from his German father feels like he’s wandered in from another picture entirely. Perhaps a 007 adventure, so sleekly exotic a killer is this indelible creation, whose “traditional” method of torture is referenced in the title.
Hong Kong-born but raised and educated in the US, Yin has popped up in occasional international productions over the years (including Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and The Man With the Iron Fists) but on this evidence his talents and presence have so far been underutilized outside Chinese-speaking regions. Here he’s effectively paired with Stephane Debac, the killer from The Prey, who provides welcome comic relief as a sad-sack crime-world underling catapulted far out of his comfort-zone, and who reaches for his electronic cigarette when the going gets tough.
In a sprawling ensemble, Sainte, Sisley and Gallic veteran Pascal Greggory — as a world-weary gendarme — also manage to make an impression. Widescreen cinematography by Jean-Francois Hensgens is classy and elegant from the opening frame, especially during several full-moon night sequences, and the sparingly used score by Christophe Boulanger and Mike Theis is always more embellishment than distraction. Such touches help to ensure that, occasional wobbles of characterization apart, Thousand Cuts generally sustains its mood of steady, brooding swagger. And while action sequences are relatively few and far between, Valette crucially handles all the gunplay and fisticuffs with case-hardened aplomb.
Production companies: The French Connection, Capture [The Flag] Films
Cast: Tomer Sisley, Erika Sainte, Pascal Greggory, Terence Yin, Cedric Ido, Stephane Debac, Clemence Bretecher, Carlos Cabral, Jean-Jacques Lelte
Director: Eric Valette
Screenwriters: Eric Valette, Herve Albertazzi (based on the novel by “DOA”)
Producers: Alexis Dantec, Raphael Rocher
Executive producer: Elsa Rodde
Cinematographer: Jean-Francois Hensgens
Production designer: Catherine Cosme
Costume designer: Frederique Leroy
Editor: Sebastien Prangere
Composers: Mike Theis, Christophe Boulanger
Casting director: Michael Bier
Venue: Rotterdam Film Festival (Perspectives)
Sales: SND, Paris
Principally in French
No Rating, 105 minutes