'The Great Game' ('Le grand jeu'): Locarno Review

Le Grand Jeu Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Locarno International Film Festival

Le Grand Jeu Still - H 2015

This delve into French political chicanery convinces without exciting.

Melvil Poupaud toplines feature-debutant Nicolas Pariser's politically-themed thriller, premiering out of competition in the Switzerland event.

A sophisticated French melange of The Ghost Writer and House of Cards, The Great Game (Le grand jeu) is a steadily engaging slow-burner that somehow never quite manages to catch fire. Nicolas Pariser's debut feature nevertheless goes about its business with a sleek, old-fashioned efficiency that portends a respectable career for this well-connected writer-director. Domestic release on December 18 should yield mid-level returns, and may be helped by ongoing current developments relating to the incidents which inspired the screenplay.

That case has also enjoyed a measure of international attention over the years, and The Great Game — whose leads Melvil Poupaud (Laurence Anyways) and Harry Potter alumna Clemence Poesy (127 Hours; In Bruges; Gossip Girl) have worked with success outside France — could be marketed as an upscale attraction by arthouse-oriented distributors. Festivals catering to mature viewers should check it out, but there's little in this professionally-crafted, slightly stodgy enterprise to interest edgier events.

Five years ago, Pariser won the short-film category of the Prix Jean Vigo — France's leading award for up-and-coming directors — with La Republique. A former student of Eric Rohmer, he then spent four years as the assistant of French cinema's legendary eminence grise Pierre Rissient.

And there may well be 'Rissient-esque' traits in the character of silkily manipulative government high-up Joseph Paskin (Andre Dussollier). Paskin sets the plot in motion when, after a supposedly chance encounter, he hires struggling novelist Pierre Blum (Poupaud) to anonymously pen a radical tome with a view to provoking far-left movements into action.

The ever-shifting relationship between Paskin and Blum is The Great Game's most successfully realized element, with triple Cesar-winner Dussollier on fine form as the genially enigmatic schemer. "Today, we live and die at the crossroads of many a mystery," he sighs.

When Dussollier's off screen — which is the case for significant stretches — proceedings tend to sag, not least because Pierre is a relatively passive and uninvolving protagonist. He lacks the drives that motivate most of the other characters on view, such as the indefatigably ambitious Paskin and — at the other end of the political spectrum — anti-capitalist activist Laura (Poesy).

Romance between divorcee Pierre and Laura perfunctorily blossoms, only to be imperiled by his ambiguous, double-agent-like status and his possible role in the arrest of Laura's commune-dwelling comrades. This raid is based directly on the 'Tarnac Nine' affair of 2008, which was coincidentally back in the headlines only days before The Great Game's world premiere at Locarno when a judge ruled that the terrorism aspect of the charges be dropped.

The idea that a Sarkozy-type French government could present leftist extremism as the main threat to the state is, post-Charlie Hebdo, a decidedly quaint one. But whatever the dramatic deficiencies of the convoluted story he concocts, Pariser certainly seems to know his way around power's murky corridors. Paskin's cynical diagnosis of democracy's current underlying malaises in particular rings all too chillingly true, with a relevance that encompasses not just the Elysee Palace but Whitehall, the Beltway and beyond.  

Production companies: Bizibi, Arte France Cinema, Les films du 10
Cast: Melvil Poupaud, Clemence Poesy, Andre Dussollier, Sophie Cattani, Vincent Deniard
Director / Screenwriter: Nicolas Pariser
Producers: Emmanuel Agneray, Jerome Bleitrach
Executive producers: Olivier Pere, Remi Burah, Claire Lanly
Cinematographer: Sebastian Buchmann
Production designer: Nicolas de Boiscuille
Costume designer: Anne-Sophie Gledhill
Editor: Lea Masson
Composers: Benoit de Villeneuve, Benjamin Morando
Casting: Nicolas Ronchi
Sales: BAC Films International, Paris
No Rating, 100 minutes