‘The Eavesdropper’ (‘La Mecanique de l’ombre’): Film Review

Writer-director Thomas Kruithof tips his hat to classic American thrillers in ‘Scribe’, a feature debut starring Francois Cluzet (‘Intouchables’) and Denis Podalydes.

A well-crafted if rather facile throwback to some of the great conspiracy thrillers of yesteryear, Thomas Kruithof’s Scribe (La Mecanique de l’ombre) follows a lonely number cruncher engulfed in the underworld of French political eavesdropping and contending with a host of unanswered questions, red herrings and at least one dead body. Think of a scaled-down, extremely analog version of The Accountant that pays homage to the ‘70s classics of Pollack, Pakula and Coppola, and you can see how this low-fi suspense flick is both retrogressively pleasing and thematically a bit shallow.

Starring Francois Cluzet (Intouchables) as the titular record keeper and Denis Podalydes (The Mystery of the Yellow Room) as his ruthless handler, with both actors turning in impeccably restrained performances, this skillful sophomore effort screened at London and Turin prior to its mid-January release in France, where it should see a modest turnout. Overseas stints could include select art house pickups.

The Bottom Line

Impressively made if a bit superficial.

Written by Kruithof and Yann Gozlan — whose Pierre Niney movie A Perfect Man was another sort of throwback, though more of the Patricia Highsmith variety — the script hits all the major beats of The Conversation, The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, dishing out a shadowy spy story and withholding tons of information to keep us guessing. Yet unlike those films, which maintained their sense of ambiguity and existential dread until the end, Scribe ties itself together too neatly while channeling cinematic nostalgia rather than contemporary malaise.

After all, how many movies set in 2016 involve someone listening to magnetic tape recordings and using a typewriter to transcribe them? (Cue up the opening scene of All the President’s Men.) Of course, old-school gadgetry is more visually appealing than a computer screen or an iPhone, which is probably why the filmmakers place their hero — the alcoholic auditor Duval (Cluzet) — in a situation where he’s unemployed, desperate and willing to accept such an odd job at the hands of Clement (Podalydes), a man of few words and evil eyes who’s some sort of powerful backdoor manipulator.

Much of the film’s first half revolves around Duval’s bizarre if uneventful daily routine, where he sits in an empty modern apartment and types up mundane phone conversations, which he leaves in a neat pile for Clement. At night, he attends AA meetings with a fellow struggling drinker, Sara (Alba Rohrwacher), with whom he seems to be forging a bond that turns vaguely romantic.

Soon enough, plot mechanics kick in when Duval overhears a discussion involving a murder, while also receiving a visit from a man (Simon Abkarian) who claims to work for Clement and coerces the scribe to help steal incriminating evidence. It’s all very McGuffiny and not entirely credible — why doesn’t Duval just quit before the going gets too rough? — even if the writers try their best to tie the genre fodder in with a backstory involving a far right-wing party and an upcoming presidential election (much like the elections happening in France in May).

But Scribe is related to current French realities — political or otherwise — in only the faintest terms, and seems to be much more about the director’s love of old American conspiracy flicks. To that effect, he and his team do a great job paying tribute to such gems, with Alex Lamarque’s moody widescreen photography tipping its hat to Gordon Willis, and production designer Thierry Francois (Bird People) keeping the decors creepy and minimal. The score by Gregoire Auger also hits the requisite thriller notes, while star Cluzet offers up a finely tuned portrait of a man caught in the “shadowy mechanics” (per the French title) of a world he hardly understands.

Production companies: 24 25 Films, Scope Pictures, RTBF, SABAH 5 Productions
Cast: Francois Cluzet, Denis Podalydes, Sami Bouajila, Simon Abkarian, Alba Rohrwacher
Director: Thomas Kruithof
Screenwriters: Thomas Kruithof, Yann Gozlan, in collaboration with Marc Syrigas, Aurelie Valat
Producers: Thibault Gast, Matthias Weber
Director of photography: Alex Lamarque
Production designer: Thierry Francois
Costume designer: Christophe Pidre
Editor: Jean-Baptiste Beaudoin
Composer: Gregoire Auger
Casting directors: Michael Laguens, Michael Bier
Sales: WTFilms

In French, 93 minutes