‘Nobody from Nowhere’ (‘Un illustre inconnu’): Film Review

Marcel Hartman
What’s in a face?

The duo behind the French hit “What’s in a Name?” team up with Mathieu Kassovitz

Ever since breaking out onto the scene with his gritty banlieue thriller La Haine, actor-director Mathieu Kassovitz has proved himself to be a rather dubious presence behind the camera, alternating B-level Hollywood flicks like Gothika and Babylon A.D. with slightly upgraded French genre material such as Assassin(s) and The Crimson Rivers. But in front of the camera, he’s managed to showcase considerably more range, playing memorable roles in Costa-GavrasAmen, Steven Spielberg’s Munich, and most recently, in Cedric Kahn’s rural drama, Wild Life.

Adding another impressive performance to that resume, he stars as a cross between a Walter Mitty-type corporate lackey and a Frederic Bourdin-style professional chameleon in Nobody from Nowhere (Un illustre inconnu), a taut Gallic suspenser where an everyday man-of-many-faces takes on his most daring impersonation of all. It marks a sturdy sophomore effort from writer Alexandre de la Patelliere and writer-director Matthieu Delaporte – the team behind the 2012 comic hit What’s in a Name? – which, despite a few contrivances, should reach a decent audience at home, with some art house and/or remake potential across the pond.

Things are clearly not what they seem in the life of Sebastien Nicolas (Kassovitz), an autistically mild mannered real estate broker who sports serial killer eyeglasses and spends nights in a gloomy suburban house, eating TV dinners alone. First seen sticking his head in the oven and blowing himself up, Sebastien quickly comes back to us during a lengthy flashback that reveals the incredible double-life he’s been leading  until now: When not trying to rent apartments out to tenants, he takes on their identities through a painstaking process involving professional latex masks and wigs (courtesy of special makeup artist Pierre-Olivier Persin) as well as the talents of a first-rate mimic.

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Why Sebastien does this is never made clear, and although it may be frustrating to never get his backstory, that’s also sort of the point: He’s a man who’s lived “42 years of non-existence,” as he narrates early on, only finding pleasure in the lives of others. The filmmakers cleverly convey that idea throughout the first act, showing how Sebastien turns his daydreams into reality through a career that grants him privileged access to the personal information of his clients. (In order to rent an apartment in France, you have to hand over a file the size of the Pentagon Papers.)

After impersonating a blue-collar florist, including showing up to AA meetings in his place, Sebastien nearly gets caught and decides to call it quits. But then he meets reclusive violin maestro Henri de Montalte (also played by Kassovitz, though the voice seems to have been dubbed by another actor), who’s been living in exile after a car accident that left him without the two fingers he needs to play his instrument. Pretentious, crotchety and brilliant, de Montalte is as challenging a role as Sebastien could find, and he sticks to it like Sean Penn sticks to anything that will give him an Oscar nomination.

It’s essentially a suspense movie film about acting – about the parts we play in everyday life, whether for ourselves or other people – and Kassovitz is mostly up to the task here, convincingly switching identities between Sebastien and the characters he portrays, even if the impersonations are never spot-on.

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That fact causes a bit of a hitch in the second and third acts, when Sebastien squirms his way into the life of de Montalte’s former girlfriend (Marie-Josee Croze) and their tweenage son (Diego Le Martret), both of whom fail to suspect they’re not dealing with the real guy. Having Kassovitz portray the two characters as a means to resolve that issue feels like a cop-out, even if Delaporte and de la Patelliere try to put forward the idea – not unlike Christian Petzold in his brilliant Phoenix – that people ultimately see what they choose to see, that looks will always be deceiving.

Clocking in at nearly two hours, Nobody from Nowhere drags in a few spots, though there are enough plot twists (including one involving the opening suicide) that keep the viewer guessing till the final reel, with brisk editing by Cecile Lafitedupont helping maintain the pace. Frigid widescreen cinematography by David Ungaro (Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky) further adds to the film’s desolate mood, as does a score by Jerome Rebotier (The Mole) that tracks Sebastien’s rise from anonymity to celebrity, and back again.

Production companies: Chapter 2, Pathe, Orange Studio, VIP cinema, Fargo Films, Galfin Production 1/2, Nexus Factory
Cast: Mathieu Kassovitz, Marie Josee Croze, Diego Le Martret, Eric Caravaca, Siobahn Finneran
Director: Matthieu Delaporte
Screenwriters: Matthieu Delaporte, Alexandre de la Patelliere
Producers: Dimitri Rassam, Alexandre de la Patelliere
Director of photography: David Ungaro
Production designer: Marie Cheminal
Costume designer: Anne Schotte
Editor: Cecile Lafitedupont
Composer: Jerome Rebotier
Special makeup: Pierre-Olivier Persin
Sales agent: Pathe International

No rating, 117 minutes