There are multiple levels on which to enjoy Roman Polanski’s Based on a True Story (D’Apres une histoire vraie), none of them very deep or complicated. But together they raise the resonance of a masterfully made psychological thriller in the traditional mode. This story of rivalry invites comparison with the director’s award-winning 2010 thriller The Ghost Writer, not least because one of the two main characters is a ghostwriter of celeb autobiographies. A teasing, tongue-in-cheek tale of literary cannibalism, it’s a film with in-jokes that will play best with audiences who watch France Culture programs and recognize references. But there’s nothing so obscure it would prevent average French film fans from enjoying a few chills from the consummate 83-year-old director who gave us Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby.
Here the screenplay, adapted by Polanski and French auteur Olivier Assayas from Delphine de Vigan’s novel, is an intimate woman’s story about one diabolical mind attempting to take over another. The director’s muse Emmanuelle Seigner steps into the laid-back threads of Delphine, a best-selling writer whom we meet at a book fair besieged by her adoring fans, captured by the camera in an amusing series of flash caricatures. She’s obviously at the top of her game, and her boyfriend Francois (Vincent Perez), the host of a book program on French TV, isn’t bad, either. But faced with the blank white Word page on her computer screen, she’s unable to produce a single syllable of her new novel.
Enter the beautiful Elle (Eva Green at her seductive, taunting best), whom she casually meets at the book fair and later bumps into again at a party. The chic young woman presents herself to Delphine as her great admirer and a humble ghost writer, currently at work on a hush-hush autobiography. Elle so clearly means trouble that the audience will have red lights flashing as soon as Alexandre Desplat’s mocking score hits its first few warning notes.
But Delphine, exhausted from her promotional labors, is taken in by the young woman and literally opens the door of her life to this bewitching stranger. Elle’s trap unfolds with silken deadliness. As chance would have it, she lives across the street from the older writer. She starts by consoling Delphine over the anonymous hate mail somebody has been slipping under her door that accuses her of besmirching her family in her books for vile gain.
Admittedly, squeezing drama and suspense out of a writer’s hermit life is no short order, and for all their concerted efforts, de Vigan and the screenwriters go no farther than mildly alarming the audience as to the outcome of Elle’s intentions. She sends messages to all Delphine’s friends and professional associates telling them to keep away so she can concentrate on her writing. But instead of urging the writer to start her book on the difficulties reality TV stars have returning to civilian life, she coaxes her instead to write the “hidden, dangerous, personal book” lurking inside her based on her own life experiences.
When Francois takes off for the U.S. to interview a laughable list of literary royalty (Cormac McCarthy, Joan Didion, Don DeLillo…), Elle sees her chance. Ignoring Francois’ warnings that she is a destabilizing influence, Delphine deepens the relationship by allowing Elle to move in with her, answer her mail and practically become her private secretary. One flashes on a role-switching drama like Joseph Losey’s The Servant, and a takeover story seems to be mutating into identity theft when the tired Delphine permits the ambitious ghostwriter to zip off to Tours and impersonate her at a lecture before 200 students.
Had this been a Brian De Palma movie, or maybe Polanski in a friskier mood, one would have expected to see some hot scenes of the lovely Seigner and Green hitting the hay together. The alert viewer will pick up scattered clues that Delphine is not such a fragile and naïve victim as we are led to assume. After all, she comes from a job in corporate social relations and must have some psychological savvy as a novelist.
Both leads entertain, but Green gets the sexier scenes, like inexplicably smashing an orange press to smithereens for no apparent reason (she later says it was because she lost a job writing Gerard Depardieu’s autobiography) and throwing hot drinks at doors. The movie rolls by effortlessly in DP Pawel Edelman’s confident lensing and Jean Rabasse’s sophisticated set design.
Production companies: WY Productions
Cast: Emmanuelle Seigner, Eva Green, Vincent Perez
Director: Roman Polanski
Screenwriters: Olivier Assayas, Roman Polanski
Producer: Wassim Beji
Director of photography: Pawel Edelman
Production designer: Jean Rabasse
Editor: Margot Meynier
Music: Alexandre Desplat
World sales: Lionsgate
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of competition)