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After four Agatha Christie adaptations that grew increasingly outlandish with each film, writer-director Pascal Thomas sets his sights on bestselling British crime author Ruth Rendell in the ensemble whodunit, Valentin Valentin. Based on the latter’s novel Tigerlilly’s Orchids, this well-cast and casually mysterious thriller skews darker than Thomas’ recent work, focusing on the ugly underside of suburban life.
But it’s also seductive and digressive in a New Wave kind of way, borrowing equally from Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut in its take on various characters inhabiting a seemingly peaceful apartment house outside Paris. (The film was shot in Saint-Mande, which lies adjacent to the site of last week’s supermarket attack.) Too idiosyncratic to be a major player on the art house circuit, Valentin nonetheless deserves attention beyond Gallic borders, especially in fests and French film weeks.
Starring Vincent Rottiers (who co-headlines Jacques Audiard’s upcoming Erran) as the titular young man whose presence, and eventual disappearance, turns his neighbors’ lives upside-down, the film features a strong supporting cast that includes: Marie Gillain as Valentin’s jealous mistress; Marilou Berry as his infatuated upstairs neighbor; Geraldine Chaplin as the building’s resident alcoholic; and Francois Morel as a parks department employee with a very dirty secret.
Co-written by Thomas and four screenwriters (including Jacques Rivette stalwart Pascal Bonitzer), the film opens with the crime scene aftermath of Valentin’s murder, followed immediately by a sequence where a female police officer exposes her privates during an outdoor photo shoot. That pretty much sets the tone for a movie that constantly shifts between private eye intrigue and bon vivant eroticism, with many of the women revealing their hots for Valentin, who himself is smitten with a mysterious Chinese girl (Karoline Conchet) held prisoner across the street.
The subplots pile up enough to keep one guessing about the culprit, although Thomas is less interested in heightening the suspense than in chronicling the messy dramas of the building’s residents as they fall in and out of love, or else fall on their faces. (This is the case with Chaplin’s boozing Jane – a sad and lonely woman who only gets worse.)
Anyone expecting things to wrap up smoothly should look elsewhere, and as the Christie films like Partners in Crime and Towards Zero have shown, genre tropes are merely used to string one along so the director can focus on other things: relationships, affairs, gags, songs, naked bodies, paintings of naked bodies, and in the case of this Rendell-inspired yarn, the abnormal lives of people who appear normal on the surface.
Performances are lively and purposely artificial, with Rottiers compelling as a blue-eyed dandy who breaks lots of hearts but always seems to have good intentions. Colorful lensing by Jean-Marc Fabre (Camille Rewinds) captures the tree-lined serenity of the Paris banlieue, while the score by Reinhardt Wagner (Paris 36) oscillates, like the film itself, between swooning refrains and playful melodies.
Production companies: Les Films Francais, SBS Productions, France 2 Cinema
Cast: Vincent Rottiers, Marilou Berry, Marie Gillain, Geraldine Chaplin, Francois Morel, Christine Citti, Agathe Bonitzer
Director: Pascal Thomas
Screenwriters: Pascal Thomas, Clemence de Bieville, Francois Caviglioni, Nathalie Lafaurie, Pascal Bonitzer, based on the book “Tigerlilly’s Orchids” by Ruth Rendell
Producers: Nathalie Lafaurie, Said Ben Said, Michel Merkt
Director of photography: Jean-Marc Fabre
Production designer: Emmanuel de Chauvigny
Costume designer: Catherine Bouchard
Editor: Yann Dedet
Composer: Reinhardt Wagner
Sales: SBS International
No rating, 105 minutes
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival