'The Assistant' ('La Volante'): Film Review

Courtesy of Bac Films
Revenge is a dish best served by your 60-something secretary.

Nathalie Baye stars in Christophe Ali and Nicolas Bonilauri's psychological thriller.

Not exactly an advertisement for keeping senior citizens on the job, The Assistant (La Volante) imagines what happens when an over-the-hill secretary carries out a murderous revenge scheme on the young executive she’s been assigned to work for.

Starring French screen veteran Nathalie Baye (Catch Me If You Can) in a role that takes cues from Fatal Attraction, Rebecca and On Golden Pound, among other sources, this loopy psychological thriller is as proficiently crafted as it is quite utterly insane, stretching plausibility far beyond the breaking point. Still, you’ve got to give directors Christophe Ali and Nicolas Bonilauri credit for trying something different, casting the affable, highly popular Baye as a knife-wielding grannie from hell.

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Released to middling reviews in France, this second feature from the team behind 2005's Camping Sauvage is a more polished and watchable effort, even if it will inadvertently draw laughs from its more preposterous setups – such as the numerous times the evil old lady spikes other people’s drinks, doing them in as they sip cups of herbal tea, shots of Nespresso or a finely aged Cote du Rhone.

Which isn’t to say the film lacks humor, and the lead performance can be playfully tongue-in-cheek until it flies off the rails – along with everything else – during a head-scratching, head-bludgeoning finale. French box office could nonetheless be uplifted by Baye’s local appeal, especially among older crowds, while Hollywood might want to remake this as an AARP-friendly take on Reservation Road.

A crosscutting opening shows earnest urban planner, Thomas (Malik Zidi), racing to the hospital with his girlfriend (Sabrina Seyvecou), who’s about to give birth. On the way, their car hits a young man, killing him on the spot and leaving his mother, Marie-France (Baye), a grieving mess.

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Nine years later, Thomas gets assigned a new secretary at his real estate firm. Guess who it is?

Marie-France is all smiles at first, though there are early signs she’s totally off her rocker. But even if Thomas is a bit put off by his assistant’s passive-aggressive attitude, he’s willing to work with her. (As a rule, French secretaries tend to be bossier than their bosses.) On the other hand, the fact that he doesn’t recognize Marie-France as the dead boy’s mother requires a major suspension of disbelief – as do several other aspects of Ali’s well-paced if somewhat ludicrous original screenplay.

Eventually, Marie-France manages to make friends with Thomas’s son, Leo (Jean-Stan Du Pac), as well as with his widowed father, Eric (Johan Leysen). Soon enough, the latter falls in love with the icy and seductive woman, who offers him another stab at love during his golden years – “stab” being the key word here, since it doesn’t take Marie-France long to try and take out the entire family.

What follows are your usual thriller hijinks, albeit of a slightly different order since it’s sweet little Baye who does all the dirty work, wielding knives, crowbars and other weapons to exact bloody vengeance for the loss of her son. The 67-year-old star manages to find a few guilty pleasures in such an outlandish role, maintaining her radiant composure, and a certain level of credibility, in a scenario that becomes increasingly hard to digest.

Tech credits are skillfully assembled, especially colorful widescreen lensing from DP Nicolas Massart (Paris or Perish) that looks better than your typical Gallic potboiler. A suspenseful score from Jerome Lemonnier (The Page Turner) takes plenty of notes from Hitchcock, as does much else in the film, although there’s a reason why one is a master and the other, just an assistant.

Production company: Cinema Defacto
Cast: Nathalie Baye, Malik Zidi, Johan Leysen, Sabrina Seyvecou, Jean-Stan Du Pac
Directors: Christophe Ali, Nicolas Bonilauri
Screenwriter: Christophe Ali
Producer: Tom Dercourt
Director of photography: Nicolas Massart
Production designer: Paul Rouschop
Costume designers: Nathalie Deceunink, Aliette Vliers
Editor: Ewin Ryckaert
Composer: Jerome Lemonnier
Casting directors: Brigitte Moidon
International sales: Bac Films

No rating, 87 minutes