‘Disappeared in Winter’ (‘Disparue en hiver’): Film Review

Ricardo Vaz Palma
Girl gone, but not forgotten

Kad Merad (“Welcome to the Sticks”) stars in Christophe Lamotte’s small-town thriller

French-Algerian funnyman Kad Merad – best known for playing opposite Dany Boon in the latter’s 2008 box office megahit, Welcome to the Sticks – brings out his seldom-seen dark side in the brooding missing persons thriller Disappeared in Winter (Disparue en hiver). It’s an impressive change of pace for the popular comic-actor, in a film that ultimately fails to impress but works all right as a somber and rather hokey Gallic take on Prisoners, minus the brutal intensity but with enough style to set it apart from your typical genre programmer. Merad’s Francophone fan base will give this January downer a small boost before it disappears into ancillary.

Haunted by the death of his daughter nearly a decade ago, former rural cop Daniel (Merad) now works as a lonely collections agent, driving around the snow-filled countryside and occasionally meeting up with his estranged wife, Christine (Geraldine Pailhas). One afternoon he offers a ride to Laura (Lola Creton), a troubled teen who attempts to prostitute herself for a few bucks. After Daniel turns her down and ditches the girl in the woods, Laura goes missing. Obsessed with finding her and plagued by his own family tragedy, Daniel begins sliding off the deep end while getting closer to cracking the case.

Reminiscent of both Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners and Atom Egoyan's Captives, but with far less action and mayhem, the script – co-written by director Christophe Lamotte (Nord-Paradis) and screenwriter Pierre Chosson (Hippocrates) – manages to keep the guessing-game going and throws in a few decent twists along the way. But it also resorts to some extremely convenient plot points, such as Daniel happing upon cassette tapes and an iPhone that help lead him to the culprit, whereas a little more tension and subtlety would have made the mystery more palpable throughout.

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At the same time, Lamotte is clearly less interested in delivering a white-knuckle thriller than in using the genre to explore Daniel’s travail de deuil (mourning process), with the missing Laura substituting for his own missing daughter. This makes for a few intriguing scenes where the grieving father connects with a girl he hardly knows and who’s already gone as well, although the movie’s depiction of Laura’s small-town slut life – parking lot orgies, S&M photos, sex with a short-order cook – is hardly convincing and plays out like an after school special about the dangers of promiscuity.

Despite its shortcomings, Disappeared is partially salvaged by Merad’s somnambulant performance, the actor moving through the frame like a tired middle age zombie with two 50-lb bags under his eyes. It’s a contained and well-calculated turn from a star who’s used to delivering embarrassing one-liners in the various trainwreck comedies (Safari, The Italian, Bangkok We Have a Problem) he’s made with long-time creative partner, Olivier Baroux. (Although Merad is not completely a stranger to drama, having nabbed a Cesar award for his portrayal of a heartbroken dad in the 2006 Melanie Laurent-starrer Don’t Worry, I’m Fine.)

Other cast members, including veteran Pailhas (Le Garcu) as a woman striving to break from her past, and Creton (Goodbye First Love) as the town’s very own Laura Palmer, help further compensate for the general lack of suspense. Tech credits are efficiently minimalist, with DP Philippe Guilbert capturing the stark winter vistas (lensed in Luxembourg), and composer Andre Dziezuk enhancing the gloom-and-doom spirit.

Production companies: Hugo Productions, Iris Productions
Cast: Kad Merad, Geraldine Pailhas, Lola Creton, Pierre Perrier, Francis Renaud
Director: Christophe Lamotte
Screenwriters: Pierre Chosson, Christophe Lamotte
Producers: Stephane Marsil, Nicolas Steil
Executive producer: Nathalie Nghet
Director of photography: Philippe Guilbert
Production designer: Mathieu Menut
Costume designer: Uli Simon
Editor: Benoit Quinon
Composer: Andre Dziezuk
Casting directors: Antoinette Boulat, Veronique Fauconnet, Doriane Flamand
Sales: Rezo World Sales

No rating, 100 minutes