Playing Dead (Je fais le mort): Rome Review

A clever murder mystery backed by the hilarious Francois Damiens.

Francois Damiens (“Suzanne”) and Geraldine Nakache (“All That Glitters”) star in Jean-Paul Salome’s latest feature, which premiered out of competition in Rome.

A floundering actor finds a new vocation as the star of a tangled crime scene reenactment in Playing Dead (Je fais le mort), a smart and frequently funny caper comedy from writer-director Jean-Paul Salome (Female Agents).

Featuring Francois Damiens as a former movie celeb who muddles the investigation of a small-town triple murder, and Geraldine Nakache as both prosecutor and prospective love interest, the film delivers laughs and charms without going too far overboard, with much of its power riding on Damiens’ spot-on performance. After an out of competition bow in Rome, the film will roll out locally mid-December, with potential for overseas pickups and – qui sait? -- a Hollywood remake.

The regrettably named Jean Renault (Damiens) -- pronounced the same way as French megastar Jean Reno -- once won the coveted César award for Most Promising Actor. But that was over 20 years ago, and he’s since become a second-rate schlub, playing bit parts in forgettable TV shows or starring in ads for diarrhea medicine. It’s not that Jean isn’t a good actor: he’s just impossible to deal with, turning every role into a Stanislavskian exercise and annoying the hell out of cast and crew.

Divorced, single and broke, he’s persuaded by his unemployment officer to take on a job playing the victims in a homicide reenactment, staged by the police of a ski resort in the French Alps. (Such official recreations exist in France, used by judges and lawyers to determine if the facts in a case are plausible.)

When he gets revved up for his first big performance -- as one of two brothers allegedly killed by a vengeful farm boy, Servaz (Corentin Lobet) -- he runs into Noemie (Nakache), the attractive, no-nonsense magistrate handling the inquiry, and whom he met on the train ride over. Suffice to say that the two hit it off like oil and water, with Jean immediately pointing out holes in Noemie’s analysis, casting doubt on Servaz’s guilt and placing it on a number of new suspects, from the local sheriff (Lucien Jean-Baptiste) to the dead duo’s surviving bro (Jean-Marie Winling).

The reenactment sequences are by far some of the funniest, with Jean taking his job way too seriously, even when he’s forced to don a latex cat suit worn by one of the deceased. Salome stages these moments like a veritable film shoot, using lots of buildup and then a few seconds of action, which can sometimes verge on slapstick overkill -- although things never get that out of hand.

But it’s Damiens who really makes these scenes spark. The Belgian-born comic -- who starred both in the Dany Boon blockbuster Nothing to Declare and the Cannes-selected family drama Suzanne -- has a knack for timing and underhanded delivery, rarely overdoing it in the way of so many French funnymen, and playing the sort of wisecracking, likeable lug that Seth Rogen and Vince Vaughn have perfected across the Atlantic.

Although the story heads to somewhat expected places, Salome keeps the guessing game going to the very end, while Jean and Noemie slowly shed their shells as they begin to fall in love. All roads eventually lead to a final, hair-raising reenactment, involving an ice skating rink and one very bad ice skater, with Salome dishing out a few additional gags to close things out.

Alongside Damiens, Nakache -- a director in her own right (All That Glitters) -- offers up a lively mix of bitchiness and dejection, allowing Noemie to open up in an amusing scene where the two get high, and then get busy. Jean-Baptiste (The Prey) is also good as a friendly cop with a few secrets of his own.

Shot in the upscale resort town of Megeve, the film makes strong use of its snow-filled, isolated locations, with DP Pascal Ridao (Sarah’s Key) slickly capturing the changing seasons and stuffy motel interiors. Composer Bruno Coulais (Coraline) provides a playful score that works perfectly for this kind of witty, Agatha Christie-style whodunit.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (Out of Competition); opens Wednesday, Dec. 11 (in France)
Production companies: Diaphana, Les Films du fleuve, France 3 Cinema, Rhone-Alpes Cinema, Restons Groupes Productions, RTBF (Television Belge)
Cast: Francois Damiens, Geraldine Nakache, Lucien Jean-Baptiste, Anne Le Ny
Director: Jean-Paul Salome
Screenwriters: Jean-Paul Salome, in collaboration with Cecile Telerman, Jerome Tonnerre
Producer: Michel Saint-Jean
Director of photography: Pascal Ridao
Production designer: Francoise Dupertuis
Costume designer: Charlotte David
Music: Bruno Coulais
Editor: Sylvie Lager
Sales agent: Films Distribution
No rating, 104 minutes