It’s often forgotten how much genre output the French make, and how well they do it. This icy thriller in a Chabrolesque mould has two brilliant performances at its centre. On the one side we have Déborah François as Mélanie, a young girl from a poor family whose ambition to become a pianist is ruined at an audition which goes so badly that she gives up playing for good. And on the other side we have Catherine Frot as the reason it went so badly, as Ariane, the famous pianist who is so blithely unaware of what the audition means for Mélanie that she signs an autograph for an adoring fan halfway through, thus shattering Mélanie’s hard-won composure. Years later the two women meet again, though Ariane doesn’t know the history of the young woman who is now her nanny, and who just happens to read music, and, yes, would be delighted to be her page turner at an upcoming comeback concert. Has Mélanie spent years working to get herself “accidentally” into this position? Well, this is a film, so the betting is that she has. But this matters very little because once Ariane has wandered into the trap set by history and an icy Mélanie, the game is on and we can only hang back and watch, and remember to breathe.
Director Denis Dercourt has a musical background (as a concert viola player) and brings an understanding of the neuroses that high-level playing foster. But the skills he shows in weaving a tense thriller with an overtone of All About Eve go well beyond familiarity: this is real expertise. Realising that less is more, he gives us barely an indication of the true workings of Mélanie’s possibly pathological mind-set, keeps us pretty much in the dark about Ariane too – was her autograph faux pas a moment of thoughtlessness or the product of aloofness borne of class contempt? And he weaves a magical, sexual spell between the two women, as Mélanie beguiles and seduces her employer (and, separately, her employer’s son, who she is also enticing along a path to we know not where).
And all this in the most exquisite style, Jérome Peyrebrune’s camera elegantly swinging through Antoine Platteau’s production design, which seems concerned with reminding us of the enormous influence of the style anglais on the moneyed BCBG set in France. The women, meanwhile, all legs and dress sense, maintain a poker-face about their true feelings – is the pianist falling for her page turner; is her page turner softening as her employer’s vulnerabilities become more obvious? Add in the obvious class element, seesawing against the older/younger woman dynamic, and things seem set for something tasteful but explosive. In fact the finale comes as a bit of a “wha…?” and is one of the film’s few disappointments. But Dercourt gets us there in high style, and in a remarkably short 81 minutes. You can hold your breath for 81 minutes?
© Steve Morrissey 2006