The adage that no one is a prophet in his own land finds no clearer proof than in the reception of American crime novelists. Slighted in the United States, Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith, William R. Burnett, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Charles Williams have been adulated in France. Though the French have no need to import another Proust, American fictions of villainy and violence provide exhilarating confirmation of the Gallic conviction that les États-Unis is still a wild frontier.
Harlan Coben, a native and resident of New Jersey, has not lacked readers in the United States. His thrillers perch on bestseller lists for months after publication. But they are also extremely popular in French translation. Though an American studio was interested in translating Coben’s 2001 novel Tell No One into film (with Keanu Reeves reportedly as lead), the deal fell through, and a French director, Guillaume Canet, took up the challenge. A Hollywood production might have been gaudy, raucous, and crude, but Canet’s Ne le dis à personne is a marvel of intelligent filmmaking. Not only is this French version of Tell No One (in which the action is transferred from New York to Paris and David and Elizabeth Beck are renamed Alexandre and Margot) complex in design and subtle in execution; it respects the acumen of a mature audience. It is that rare murder mystery that engages both the heart and the mind and is not exhausted in a single viewing.
While otherwise heightening suspense, some of the soundtrack might appear to contradict that claim. Lyrics to the songs “Lilac Wine” —
performed by Jeff Buckley — and “With or Without You” — performed by U2 — seem too literal a commentary on what is going on in the plot, except that the songs are in English while the film is in French, adding an extra layer of enigma for a viewer in France.
“Tell no one” would be considerate advice about the unexpected turns and feints taken by the movie’s sinuous story line; it would be churlish to diminish anyone’s pleasure in experiencing the complexities of Tell No One. What can in good conscience be told is that most of the action takes place eight years after a traumatic event. During an idyllic evening beside a lake, Dr. Alexandre Beck (Cluzet) attempts to defend his beloved wife Margot (Croze) from assault by two strangers. Knocked unconscious, Alex does not awaken from a coma until three days later, in time to attend Margot’s cremation. Eight years later, Alex is still bereft, confused, and bitter. A pediatrician in a large public hospital, he is kind and attentive to his young patients, but he has not been able to reconcile himself to the loss of the woman he has loved since childhood. The unexpected discovery of the bodies of Margot’s two assailants leads the police, for whom Alex himself remained suspect, to reopen the case. Alex receives an email message directing him to a website but warning: “Tell no one. They’re watching.” At the website is a real-time street cam, and he is convinced he sees Margot among the passersby on screen.
Like The Fugitive, North by Northwest, and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Tell No One is the story of a man on the run who must evade and outwit the authorities while convincing them of his innocence. “All I want is the truth,” insists a police inspector named Levkowitch (François Berléand), but few others in the film share his desire, and until the final frames the truth eludes the characters and the viewer. Nuanced performances by a superb cast, including veterans Nathalie Baye (as a high-powered, high-strung lawyer), Jean Rochefort (a wealthy, corrupt politician), André Dussollier (Margot’s gruff father), and Kristin Scott Thomas (speaking fluent French, the lover of Alex’s sister), make this a whodunit to revel in even after unraveling who done what to whom.
Tell No One is a celebration of enduring love, but more interesting than the relationship between Alex and Margot, which is deposited at the center of things, is its theme of paternal devotion. It is appropriate that Alex’s medical specialty is pediatrics, since children and their fathers prove crucial to the proceedings. Consider the filial relationships of: Margot and her father, a retired cop; Alex and his father, a horse trainer; a powerful senator and his spoiled, abusive son; a gangster named Bruno and his hemophiliac boy.
It is possible that Hollywood will end up paying this film the ultimate compliment — remaking it in English and simpleminded sequences. It comes to us now belatedly, two years after its triumphant release in Europe, where it garnered several César awards. Encompassing a broad cross section of French society, Canet’s Tell No One is a deft appropriation of an American fiction. A spectacular chase through streets, shops, and outdoor markets navigates a wide and unfamiliar cityscape. Alex flees on foot; the pediatrician is a pedestrian. Very Parisian. •
Editor’s note: As of press time, the Santikos Bijou has rescheduled Tell No One to open August 8.
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