2006 // France // Guillaume Canet // August 10, 2008 // Theatrical Print
C - Guillaume Canet's absorbing yet irksome thriller Tell No One engages (for a time) as a puzzle box, and also as a bitter rumination on the costs of secrecy. It twists together computer mischief, frenetic action set pieces, and cops-and-corruption melodrama, and punctuates them with brutally violent exclamation marks. Despite the cloak-and-dagger intensity of its plot, Tell No One rarely grandstands, its themes murmuring rather than screaming. It boasts sufficient moments of originality and sleek cinematic pleasure that its story troubles—evidencing a distressingly amateur tendency—are rendered doubly exasperating. The plot may be convoluted, but this doesn't justify Tell No One's garbled cinematic language. When a con succeeds not through misdirection and cunning but because the mark didn't even understand the rules of the game, something has gone seriously awry.
Tell No One boasts a shameless, pop- and soul-strewn soundtrack that proclaims the film's earnestly romantic ethos. And wherever romance rears its head in a thriller, tragedy is sure to be lurking nearby. Accordingly, the film presents us with French pediatrician Alexendre Beck (François Cluzet) who had just finished medical school when his wife Margot (Marie-Josée Croze) was murdered, apparently by a notorious serial killer. Eight years later, the good doctor is still numb from the loss of a woman he believed to be his soul mate. Now there are new rumblings in the case, precipitated by freshly unearthed bodies, freshly suspicious policemen, and, most significantly, a mysterious email sent to Beck. He's baffled and anguished when the email links him to a live surveillance camera that captures—for only a moment—a woman who looks remarkably like Margot. But it can't be Margot, can it? Are the police tormenting him? Or is it someone else's sick game?
Beck's lingering doubts and still-bloody emotional wounds seem to render him ripe for gas-lighting, as his friend and sister's lover Hélène (Kristin Scott Thomas) suspects. Beck begins to wonder how much he really knows about his wife's death, or, for that matter, her life. There are more emails, photos he can't explain, and breadcrumbs that lead in ever-widening spiral out from Margot. Tell No One is most effective when it roils within Beck's headspace, keeping its focus on this one man's enduring love for his wife. Never mind that the storybook glow to their relationship seems sketchy, despite the film's heavy-handed assertion that they were Meant For Each Other. Within the conflicted territory where Beck's affections and fears swirl, Tell No One finds the room to neatly explore the consequences of keeping secrets. The film is essentially a tragedy, a grim tale where no good deed goes unpunished, and where happy endings tend to brush past in a crowd and vanish, glimpsed but never found.
There's more than a little of Paul Greengrass's ADD jitters in Canet's approach to action sequences, but the director is skillful enough to maintain a brisk aura of authentic danger throughout them. The chases and escapes are never dull, although they at times feel like detours in a work plainly absorbed with perils more abstract than car crashes. Similarly, there's something disappointing about a film with lofty thematic ambitions that traffics in thriller conventions so clichéd they sting. When Beck aids a gangbanger's hemophiliac son in an early scene, there's no doubt that the act will reap a boon later, especially when Beck nobly refuses the thug's money. The film practically has a genre checklist in hand: the wrongly accused protagonist, the clandestine meeting in a public place, the rot in the halls of power, and an overly-long climactic exposition, complete with clarifying flashbacks. Thank goodness that Tell No One is more interesting than its trappings would suggest. That said, there is the odd flash of bottled lightning. Among the goons hounding Beck's steps, Mikaela Fisher leaves a lasting impression as a lanky ghoul of an amazon with a knack for pressure-point torture. And Canet pulls off an astonishing coup by employing an overcooked U2 song in a completely appropriate and gratifying manner.
The serious flaw that bedevils Tell No One is its simple failure to effectively communicate its plot points, a problem that reeks distressingly of Z-movie clumsiness. In terms of pure storytelling, the film is a mess. New characters appear without warning and make statements that certainly seem relevant, yet context is perpetually a few paces behind the film-makers (and the viewer). I spent half the film trying to keep up with a proliferation of vaguely sketched relationships and barely hinted plot elements. Yet, if anything, Tell No One is overly long, frittering away its running time on chases and monologues that go on several beats past their purpose. It's a film sorely in need of a re-write, methinks. The problem may also be one of editing, as there actually appear to be missing scenes at select points. Most maddeningly, vital backstory is revealed only when it is relevant for a "surprising" revelation. (One example of this at the climax is so egregious that I am convinced I missed something earlier in the film. This alleged twist simply couldn't be as cheap as it seemed.) It's lamentable to see such fundamental storytelling blunders hobble a thriller that is otherwise so thoughtful and engaging.