'The Translators' ('Les Traducteurs'): Film Review

The Translators - Publicity still - H 2020
'The Usual Suspects' meets Rosetta Stone.

French writer-director Régis Roinsard’s literary whodunit features a multinational cast whose characters are all suspected of stealing a future best-seller.

Not so much Knives Out as it is Merriam-Webster Bilingual Dictionaries Out, Régis Roinsard’s cleverly concocted thriller The Translators (Les Traducteurs) is set within the bookish confines of best-selling paperbacks and their ruthless publishers, following a group of talented polyglots caught in a scenario straight out of Agatha Christie.

As unenticing as that may sound to some, don’t forget the pen is always mightier than the sword, and so what could have been a dull and very French lecture in modern linguistics becomes a high-stakes whodunit where the usual suspects are not your typical movie culprits. Superficial but enjoyable in a guilty pleasure sort of way, just like any good airport novel — or, to translate that into French, roman de gare (train station novel) — this is the kind of crowd-pleaser that could reach audiences abroad via streaming sites.

Written by Roisnard, Daniel Presley and Romain Compingt, the script is filled with twists, red herrings, false clues and third-act reversals, keeping us guessing until fairly late in the game. Add to that Roisnard’s meticulous sense of craft — already on display in his polished 2012 début, Populaire — and you get an altogether slick package that, like the prized book at the heart of its mystery, is a page-turner that never digs too deep.

The plot revolves around the upcoming release of the third installment in the fictive Daedalus trilogy, a Millennium-style global sensation that’s made the fortune of Angstrom Publishing and its sinister CEO, Eric (Lambert Wilson, at his conniving French best). In order to put the book out simultaneously in all major territories, Eric has hired a crack team of translators with just over a month to get the job done, giving them draconian working rules that keep them under armed surveillance in a tricked-out bunker beneath a chateau.

Like a U.N. Security Council meeting, but with bilingual dictionaries aplenty, the group hails from around the world and uses French as a common language, with occasional forays into their native tongues. There’s nine translators in all, each somewhat of a cultural cliché, including: the Russian femme fatale, Katerina (Olga Kurylenko); the flamboyant Italian, Dario (Riccardo Scarmarcio); the depressed Dane, Helene (Sidse Babett Knudsen); the stuttering Spaniard, Javier (Edouardo Noriega) — it’s not clear what stuttering says about Spain; the punkish Portuguese girl, Telma (Maria Leite); the Marxist Greek, Konstantinos (Manolis Mavromatakis); the Chinese pragmatist, Chen (Frédéric Chau); the uptight German, Ingrid (Anna-Maria Sturm); and last, but certainly not least, the pale shaggy-dog Brit, Alex (Alex Lawther).

When the first 10 pages of the novel leak online, with more to come if Angstrom doesn’t pay a hefty ransom, Eric forces the group into nuclear lockdown to find out who the culprit is. Fingers get pointed, rooms get searched, nationalities get insulted and soon, guns are drawn and shots fired. It all seems like a bit much for a manuscript, but when you realize the Millennium books have sold over 100 million copies worldwide — convert that into the currency of your choice — it’s clear what the stakes are here.

Roinsard dishes out plenty of hints to help us solve the enigma, including the introduction of an old bookseller (the great Patrick Bauchau, La Collectionneuse) who becomes a key factor of the plot, but the director is also smart enough not to give his full game away until the closing minutes. Still, the shenanigans grow somewhat tedious midway through, especially when all the scheming and violence become too excessive for the literati to handle, stretching credulity a tad too far. Things pick up nicely again toward the start of the last act, especially during a well-crafted Paris-set heist sequence, leading to a denouement that tosses in more twists for the road.

What all this, um, translates too is not very profound or thought-provoking, with characters who tend to wear their country's flags on their sleeves (actually, they each have a flag on their writing desk) and the film’s rather obvious message about evil corporatized literature pounded into our heads several times over. And yet, Roinsard makes his genre exercise exciting enough to watch, getting the most out of a purported €10 million ($11 million) budget, with kinetic camerawork from veteran DP Guillaume Schiffman (The Artist) and sets by Sylvie Olivé (Double Lover) that give the contained settings plenty of scope. Performances are solid from the multinational cast, especially the young and impressively bilingual Lawther (The Imitation Game) as a major Daedalus Trilogy fanboy with much to hide and much to reveal.

Production companies: Trésor Films, Mars Films, France 2 Cinéma, Wild Bunch, Les Productions du Trésor, Artemis Productions, VOD, BE TV
Cast: Lambert Wilson, Olga Kurylenko, Riccardo Scarmarcio, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Edouardo Noriega, Alex Lawther, Anna-Maria Sturm, Frédéric Chau, Maria Leite, Manolis Mavromatakis, Sara Giraudeau, Patrick Bauchau
Director: Régis Roinsard
Screenwriters: Régis Roinsard, Daniel Presley, Romain Compingt
Producer: Alain Attal
Executive producer: Xavier Amblard
Director of photography: Guillaume Schiffman
Production designer: Sylvie Olivé
Costume designer: Emmanuelle Youchnovski
Editor: Loïc Lallemand
Composer: Jun Miyake
Sales: Wild Bunch

In French, English, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, Russian, German, Danish, Greek
105 minutes