Film Review: Secrets of State

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PARIS -- French director Philippe Haim appears to have bought heavily and belatedly into the idea of the global war on terror since his spy thriller "Secrets of State" imagines a fiendish terrorist plot to commit a poison gas attack on Paris which only the DGSE (the French secret services) is able to foil.

No implausibility is too great, no stereotype too brazen, no cliche too stale for Haim as he seeks to persuade us of the reality of the titanic struggle between secret agents and fanatical killers supposedly going on in the background of our daily lives. High production values and intensive promotion may gain the movie some play in its home territory, but subtlety is at a premium in this busy farrago. Non-French audiences may have difficulty distinguishing it from a score of straight-to-DVD thrillers with exotic settings.

Diane (Vahina Giocante), a young student of Arabic, is recruited to the DGSE and trained to infiltrate a terrorist network headed by the evil Al-Barad (Simon Abkarian). At the same time, Pierre (Nicolas Duvauchelle), a young delinquent from a broken, loveless home, is attracted to Islamist circles where he seems to find meaning and a role in life, little suspecting where this is going to lead him. Spy-chief Alex (Gerard Lanvin), we soon realize, is being every bit as manipulative as his archrival Al-Barad.

As these and the secondary plot-lines unfold, Haim's overheated directing style generates little light as he hops from one location to the next -- Paris, Amman, Berlin, Beirut, Afghanistan -- leaving the spectator struggling to keep up. The profusion of supporting roles and the fragmented narrative (few sequences last more than 15 or 20 seconds) mean that there is little or no time to lend any depth to the characters. In any case, it's clear that the director is more interested in effect than psychological insight.

What's to admire? Jerome Almeras's cinematography provides balm to the eyes and the technical specifics are faultless. But the acting is perfunctory: the young leads are barely convincing, Lanvin has little to do so he sleepwalks through it, while Abkarian is a villain out of central casting.

The filmmakers allegedly enrolled a brigade of experts to advise on terrorism, security, Islam and such. They would have done better hiring an expert in dramatic technique.

Release date in France: December 10