‘The Clearstream Affair’ (‘L’Enquete’): Film Review

Courtesy of Mars Distribution
Follow the money

Gilles Lellouche ('Point Blank') stars in Vincent Garenq's ripped-from-the-headlines saga

With the HSBC-Swiss Leaks scandal breaking out less than a week ago, it seems that massive financial fraud is l’ordre du jour in Europe. So it’s either the result of a truly fortuitous coincidence, or a major film industry conspiracy, that director Vincent Garenq’s The Clearstream Affair (L’Enquete) was released today in French theatres.

Based on the real exploits of Denis Robert – an investigative journalist who spent years tracking the illicit activities of the Luxembourg-based Clearstream bank, uncovering ties with leading French companies and government officials – the film provides a comprehensive overview of an incident that made local headlines throughout the last decade. But like an extremely thorough tax audit, it tends to get lost in facts and figures while lacking the necessary suspense, making for an instructive if anticlimactic inquiry that should see decent returns throughout Francophonia.

After an opening flash-forward, we jump back to Paris in the late 1990’s, where the happily married father-of-two Robert (Gilles Lellouche) works as a pigheaded, truth-seeking reporter for the French daily Liberation. But after his boss refuses to publish an editorial in which the journo accuses the current administration of widespread corruption, Robert decides to quit and author his own book on the subject.

Meanwhile – and there are way too many “meanwhiles” in a script (by Garenq, Robert and Stephane Cabel) that keeps hopping between a multitude of characters and locations, getting its facts straight but diminishing the overall tension – a French magistrate, Van Ruymbeke (a well-disguised Charles Berling), is examining the shady dealings between a local defense contractor and the Taiwanese military, in which hundreds of millions in kickbacks and commissions illegally exchanged hands.

Eventually, both Robert and Van Ruymbeke will follow trails leading them to the mysterious Clearstream, whose name suggests transparency but whose banking practices are considerably more murky. Through dozens of interviews, meetings, hushed parking garage conversations and smuggled files (one hidden on a Bob Marley CD), we learn that Clearstream functions as a sort of “bank of banks,” allowing financial institutions and wealthy investors to hold secret accounts, which can be used for everything from unreported income to money laundering.

Much of the film’s first half follows Robert as he chases the white rabbit of fiscal fraud, cutting away to scenes of him at home with his wife (Florence Loiret Caille) and daughters, who are getting fed up with his obsessive workload. It’s pretty much your typical little guy vs. big business narrative, though Clearstream doesn’t have the stylistic chops of The Insider or All the President’s Men, nor a main character who’s interesting in his own right (Lellouche’s performance is passable at best here).

Things take lots of twists and turns once Robert publishes his book Revelation$, which becomes a small sensation but makes him the subject of various lawsuits as the banks fight back with unlimited resources. Yet another player is introduced when Imad Lahoud (Laurent Capelluto), a financial confidence man who already served jail time, becomes an informant for Robert, Van Ruymbeke and members of the French arms industry, but turns out to be a Deep Throat who can’t be trusted.

With so much going on at once, it’s hard for Garenq to wrap his hands around the whole affair, and he tends to get lost in all the details – in a movie that often favors the trees over the forest. Even if Robert’s gradual downfall serves as the main narrative arc, the plethora of information winds up pushing his plight to the background. And unlike the director’s other front-page tale, Guilty (based on a French judicial scandal involving false accusations of pedophilia), Clearstream never blows the viewer away as it blows the whistle on yet another instance of official corruption that went unchecked.

Benefiting from a handsome tech package, the film looks and sounds great, with DP Renaud Chassaing (Domestic Life) using crisp widescreen compositions that add texture to the many offices, courtrooms, hallways, alleyways and lobbies where much of the drama is set. Indeed, this €8m ($9m) Franco-Belgian-Luxembourg co-production may be one of the rare cases in which it actually makes sense to keep darting back and forth between countries. Too bad the numbers don't quite add up.

Production companies: Nord-Ouest Films, Samsa Film, Artemis Productions, France 3 Cinema, Mars Films, Cool Industrie
Cast: Gilles Lellouche, Charles Berling, Laurent Capelluto, Florence Loiret Caille
Director: Vincent Garenq
Screenwriters: Vincent Garenq, Stephane Cabel, Denis Robert, based on the graphic novel “L’Affaire des affaires” by Denis Robert, Yan Lindingre, Laurent Astier, and the book “La Boite Noire” by Denis Robert
Producers: Christophe Rossignon, Philip Boeffard
Executive producer: Eve Francois Machuel
Director of photography: Renaud Chassaing
Production designer: Veronique Sacrez
Costume designer: Catherine Marchand
Editors: Vincent Garenq, Elodie Codaccioni, Raphael de Monpezat
Composer: Erwann Kermorvant
Casting director: David Bertrand
Sales agent: Films Distribution

No rating, 106 minutes