Mobius: Berlin Review

Mobius Jean Dujardin Still - H 2013
Fabrizio Maltese

Mobius Jean Dujardin Still - H 2013

Jean Dujardin's marquee name is the best thing this less-than-gripping thriller has going for it.

The Oscar-winning star of "The Artist" goes for some undercover action in this English, French and Russian-language espionage thriller.

BERLIN -- Returning to the espionage theme of his 1994 feature The Patriots, Eric Rochant’s big-budget thriller Mobius takes place in the present-day post-financial crisis world. But its ambience has a distinctly flashy, Eurotrashy ‘90s tang that makes it not difficult to peg as a production from Luc Besson’s EuropaCorp banner. The film is too muddy in its over-complicated plotting and too slack in its pacing to maximize suspense. However, its glossy look and the star pairing of Oscar-winner Jean Dujardin with Cecile de France should give it a commercial head start at home and a smattering of sales abroad.

There’s something mildly dispiriting about seeing two actresses associated with the exquisitely observed ultra-realism of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne -- de France from The Kid With a Bike, and Emilie Dequenne from Rosetta – meeting in a high-end sauna to clinch a spying agreement concerning a sleazy Russian kingpin. But, hey, everyone’s got to pay the mortgage.

Perhaps even odder for international audiences familiar with him only from The Artist will be watching Dujardin put his swarthy good looks and mellow charisma behind a role that overstates the character’s sexual prowess to an almost ludicrous degree.

Playing Gregory Lioubov, an undercover Russian intelligence officer stationed in Monaco, he shoots a few smoldering glances at brilliant international banking ace Alice Redmond (de France), and they swap some flirtatious banter. Before long, they’re in the sack and he’s steering her -- shuddering, gasping, almost weeping -- through a couple of rapturous orgasms while lying on his back doing nothing but staring up at her with glistening eyes. “You have solid arms,” she says, wrapped in them during their post-coital afterglow. “They feel like home.” Seriously, this is a bit much.

Alice is unaware that Gregory, who tells her he’s in publishing, and his colleague Sandra (Dequenne) are both members of the FSB, Russia’s post-KGB secret service. Posing as a finance brigade cop, Sandra recruits Alice to retrieve information on the business investments of crooked Russian tycoon Ivan Rostrovski (Tim Roth). But while Alice’s cool beauty (de France is styled here like a young Lauren Hutton) and her financial expertise make her tantalizing to Ivan, his sinister head of security Khorzov (Aleksei Gorbunov) smells a rat.

“You are wise, miss,” he tells her through narrowed eyes in one of many arch moments. “Wise and beautiful.” But she can tell he’s not buying.

Alice, in fact, does have her own history. Having been scapegoated in a crackdown on speculative trading in the U.S., she is banned from working there. So when the CIA reaches out, she may be open to playing a double game. Gregory’s politically ascendant boss (Vladimir Menshov) keeps telling him there’s no margin for error in this operation, but he’s already in deep with Alice, going to great lengths to keep their trysts hidden from his colleagues and to protect her from Khorzov.

Even when all the cards are finally on the table, it’s less than 100 percent clear in Rochant’s convoluted script where everybody stands. What’s more problematic, however, is that the film doesn’t bother establishing a concrete emotional connection in a romance that has both Gregory and Alice contemplating taking flight together. All they’ve really shared is great sex.

Dialogue-driven action doesn’t appear to be Rochant’s forte, particularly in the clunky CIA scenes. Despite having seasoned pros like John Lynch and Wendell Pierce on hand, their exchanges feel stiff and phony, suggesting minimal communication between the director and some of his cast. Roth phones it in but otherwise the leads do well enough with roles of limited depth, even if Russian audiences may have trouble swallowing Dujardin as a one-time young Moscow Mafioso.

Mobius starts off as a finance thriller in the mold of Arbitrage or Margin Call, with solemn requiem music conveying the moral bankruptcy in the upper echelons of the money market. It then shifts somewhat half-heartedly into spy mode, with a few nasty scrapes and narrow escapes but not enough suspenseful set-pieces to build much tension or excitement. In the age of the Bourne franchise, this just doesn’t cut it.

There are glamorous locations -- gleaming glass towers of industry, luxury hotels and restaurants, deluxe clubs with outre strip acts and bars with eye-roll-inducing names like “Destiny” and “Apocalypse” -- all photographed with efficient if unimaginative commercial sheen by Pierre Novion. But aside from some current references to global finance, this all feels like something that might have been cooked up 20 years ago.

Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Market; opens Feb. 27 in France)
Production companies: Recifilms, Axel Films, Les Productions du Tresor, EuropaCorp, JD Prod, France 3 Cinema, Samsa Film, Artemis Productions
Cast: Jean Dujardin, Cecile de France, Tim Roth, Emilie Dequenne, Aleksei Borgunov, Vladimir Menshov, John Lynch, Prasana Puwanarajah, Wendell Pierce, Brad Leland
Director-screenwriter: Eric Rochant
Producers: Mathias Rubin, Eric Juherian, Christophe Cervoni
Executive producer: Eric Zaouali
Director of photography: Pierre Novion
Production designer: Philippe Chiffre
Music: Jonathan Morali
Costume designer: Carine Sarfati
Editor: Pascale Fenouillet
Sales: EuropaCorp
No rating, 108 minutes