At what point does a routine mid-life crisis turn into a full-scale Ripleyesque reinvention? Eric Lartigau’s The Big Picture explores the drastic measures taken by Parisian lawyer Paul Exben (Romain Duris), following his discovery of his wife’s infidelity. If, like me, you’re a fan of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels, you’ll enjoy watching Duris take on another man’s identity, with the help of some additional facial hair and a seemingly endless supply of cash. But don’t go expecting action, suspense, or a regular supply of corpses: this is more of a character study than a thriller.
Novelists often treat film adaptations of their work with barely disguised contempt. But author Douglas Kennedy has been fulsome in his praise for this movie, which shifts the action of his 1997 novel from the USA to Europe. The story begins one morning in the posh suburbs of Paris, where the nine-month-old son of Paul and his wife Sarah (Marina Foïs) is loudly making his presence felt. Paul leaves for the office and another day of advising clients on how to deal with the burden of being filthy rich. You get the impression that this work isn’t intellectually challenging or spiritually uplifting.
At lunch, his business partner Anne (Catherine Deneuve) casually announces that she is terminally ill and has decided not to seek treatment. Shortly afterwards, the discontented Sarah tells Paul that she wants a separation. Since bad news always come in threes, a bottle of New Zealand wine turns out to be his first clue that Sarah has been having an affair with arrogant photographer Grégoire (Eric Ruf).
The screenplay by Lartigau and Laurent de Bartillat handles the rapid disintegration of Paul’s seemingly perfect life with insight, humour and narrative economy. A touching moment in which a fully clothed Paul jumps into the bath with his elder son, Hugo, speaks volumes about his hands-on (clothes-on) parenting style.
The scenes involving the two women in his life suggest that Paul commands more respect in his professional life than on the home front. Foïs (who is Lartigau’s partner) expertly conveys the long-suppressed frustrations of a woman who believes her husband has taken all the easy options and chosen money over a satisfying career. There’s still a mutual attraction and affection between the pair, but it’s rapidly diminishing. As Anne, Deneuve is perfectly cast as the quintessential elegant Parisian, accepting her own fate and the sudden loss of her colleague with the same degree of equanimity.
But these subplots involving Sarah’s affair and Anne’s illness are never developed, because The Big Picture makes an abrupt transition from bourgeois domestic drama to something much darker. I won’t reveal the details of why Paul has to get out of Paris in such a hurry. Let’s just say that his man-to-man conversation with Grégoire about their mutual interest in Sarah doesn’t end in a handshake. Grégoire taunts his rival on a sexual and professional level, because he knows that Paul has never pursued his own interest in photography beyond filling a room with expensive equipment. It’s the classic rich man’s cop-out.
Romain Duris is an actor with an abundance of verve and easy charm, both of which were used to good effect in the romantic comedy Heartbreaker. His unkempt looks and slightly wonky smile make him the antithesis of those bland but polished Hollywood pretty boys. But as in The Beat that My Heart Skipped (2005), it’s his brooding introspection that makes him such a compelling performer. In the second half of The Big Picture Paul fakes his own death and exiles himself from his wife, sons and profession — for good. Whatever you think about the rationale behind his life-changing decision, Duris makes us believe that for Paul there were no other options.
Paul’s flight from Paris takes him to a rented house by a lake in Montenegro — a land of smoke-filled bars where everyone seems to speak English and there’s no need for subtitles. The unspoilt landscapes and slightly shabby architecture of Central Europe offer a stark contrast to those chic Parisian boulevards. As in Anton Corbijn’s The American, The Big Picture is a study of a man in exile, trying to go about his business quietly, yet unable to avoid attracting attention.
That business turns out to be reinventing himself as his wife’s lover, the wealthy shutterbug Greg. For me, it’s a major flaw in the plot that Paul has failed to think through the consequences of pursuing photography as a career, rather than just a hobby. His cover story wouldn’t survive even the most basic Google search by newspapaper editor Ivana (Branka Katic) or her bibulous colleague Bartholomé (Niels Arestrup). While the possibility of his discovery adds some tension to the proceedings, I can’t help thinking that assuming another man’s identity was a simpler affair in the pre-internet days of Patricia Highsmith.
As in the Paris sequences, there are strong but underdeveloped supporting roles for Katic as Paul’s love interest and Arestrup (A Prophet) as the equivalent of the inquisitive priest who befriended George Clooney’s assassin in The American. Their attempts to learn more about Paul break up the lengthy but absorbing sequences in which he explores this new environment through the camera lens.
Unlike literature, film doesn’t have the luxury of pages of interior monologue to convey how the newly unattached Paul feels about the sacrifices and the mistakes he has made. The Big Picture has to rely heavily on the ability of Duris to convey this inner torment without the use of voiceover. There’s a half-written email to his wife; a sequence in which he sees his past in a series of snapshots; and most poignantly the picture of his beloved sons that he keeps in his car.
The Big Picture isn’t about the vicarious thrill of seeing whether a man really can get away with faking his own death. As his new life unravels, you wonder whether Paul has truly liberated himself by pursuing a more meaningful career, or whether he’s simply an outcast. After a slow build-up, Lartigau loses control in the last 10 minutes with a concluding episode that I found confusing. But Duris brings a much-needed emotional honesty to his role that glosses over some of the implausibilities in the plot.