'SK1' ('L'Affaire SK1'): Film Review

SK1 Still - H 2014
Courtesy of SND

SK1 Still - H 2014

A taut French thriller whose suspense runs mostly skin-deep

A serial killer stalks 1990s Paris in this debut feature from Frederic Tellier

SK1 is French police jargon for “Serial Killer 1,” the codename given in the 1990s to a rapist and murderer who preyed on young women in eastern Paris. Nicknamed “The Beast of Bastille,” the culprit, later identified as Guy Georges, was not the country's first serial killer, though he was the first to be caught via DNA analysis — even if cops had to overcome years of bureaucratic bungling and bad luck to finally get to him.

The procedural side of the decadelong manhunt takes a front seat to everything else in writer-director Frederic Tellier’s gripping period thriller, which stars the debonair Raphael Personnaz (The French Minister) as an obsessive detective who finds his personal and professional lives upended by the case. Best when it reveals the painstaking details of investigative work, worst when it plunges into improbable emotional depths, SK1 is an above-average policier that should score solid returns at home while piquing the interest of genre distributors abroad. 

Freely adapted from journalist Patricia Tourancheau’s book by Tellier and co-writer David Oelhoffen (Far From Men), the script jumps back and forth between 1991, when a first victim is found at home with her throat cut, to 2001, when Georges (the intense Adama Niane) is finally brought to trial, where he’s defended by a female litigator (Nathalie Baye) who takes a moral interest in acquitting the killer.

In between, members of the Police Judiciaire relentlessly track their assailant, headed by shrewd young upstart Charlie (Personnaz), who quickly discovers parallels between the 1991 case and others with comparably grisly details. But Charlie and his partner, Bougon (Olivier Gourmet), and captain, Carbonel (Michel Vuillermoz), soon find themselves facing false leads, dead ends and an archaic system that prevents them from putting the puzzle together. When more women are found raped and butchered in parking garages, another investigative team takes the lead and refuses to share information. The mismanagement piles up to the point that you’re left thinking: Paris is a wonderful place to visit, but not one to be murdered in.

Tellier — making his first feature after directing for television — handles these sequences with considerable tact, and the film’s nitty-gritty portrait of police work is often reminiscent of Bertrand Tavernier’s classic Narc drama L.627 (a poster for which can be spotted on the wall of Charlie’s office). Even if viewers may know the outcome already, SK1 should nonetheless keep them on the edge of their seats until the third act, when Georges finally is apprehended and the trial kicks into full swing.

It’s at this point that the movie’s limitations start showing: Charlie is meant to be the leading man, but he’s no better than your boilerplate compulsive cop, and the scenes between him and his stay-at-home wife are awfully flat — including an embarrassing bathtub dispute that belongs in a TV movie. Meanwhile, Georges is depicted with a welcome amount of compassion, yet the catharsis he’s meant to reach during the film’s lengthy denouement is not all that convincing. Unlike in Zodiac (which SK1 definitely recalls at times), there are no real mysteries at the end of the line, and the characters are drawn too thinly to allow us to plumb beneath the surface of historical events.

Still, Tellier reveals a knack for building tension out of bureaucratic calamity, with DP Mathias Boucard (Goal of the Dead) racing down the crammed hallways of the Quai des Orfevres police headquarters as Charlie and his squad turn in frustrating circles. The score by Tellier and Christophe La Pinta (Anything for Alice) further adds to the suspense, suddenly dropping out into moments of chilling silence.

Personnaz already showcased his chops in the Marcel Pagnol remake Marius and Tavernier’s political satire The French Minister, and he gallantly channels Charlie’s quest for the culprit, even if his turn is limited by a one-dimensional role. Supporting work from veterans Baye, Gourmet and Vuillermoz is strong, while Niane deftly plays Georges as a troubled lost soul who recalls the assassin in Claire DenisI Can’t Sleep — another portrait of a killer who wreaked havoc on Paris in the ‘90s, although Denis’ film managed to go beyond pure procedure. Here, it’s just the facts, ma’am.

Production company: Labyrinthe Films
Cast: Raphael Personnaz, Nathalie Baye, Olivier Gourmet, Michel Vuillermoz, Adama Niane, Christa Theret
Director: Frederic Tellier
Screenwriters: Frederic Tellier, David Oelhoffen, freely inspired by the book “Guy Georges — La Traque” by Patricia Tourancheau
Producers: Julien Madon, Julien Leclercq
Director of photography: Mathias Boucard
Production designer: Nicolas Prier
Costume designer: Elisabeth Rousseau-Lehuger
Editor: Mickael Dumontier
Composers: Christophe La Pinta, Frederic Tellier
Casting director: Christophe Moulin
Sales: SND Groupe M6

No rating, 119 minutes