Friday, 11 March 2011

Avant L’Aube (The Night Clerk) (2011)

A death, and the family

Image: UGC Distribution

A recurrent problem with new directors is the difficulty of crystallising a personal style while at the same time dealing with elements which can be seen as referential to other directors who have influenced them. That Raphël Jacoulot manages both of these with considerable panache, in what is only his sophomore effort as director, is one of the main reasons that Avant L’Aube feels like such an accomplishment.

The plot is a simple one, wherein a young man with something of a chequered past, Frédéric, becomes embroiled in the mysterious events at the mountain hotel in which he is working. A client has disappeared, and the police arrive looking for clues. Frédéric knows something, but keeps quiet out of a sense of duty to his boss, pere de famille Jacques. The relationship between Jacques and Frédéric puts strain on Jacques’s family unit, and the presence of a kooky but capable female police officer digging around for clues pushes this strain to the point of fracture.

The film can be read on one level as a patchwork of cinematic reference; the hotel in the snow from The Shining; the powerful music and creeping camera of Alfred Hitchcock; the precarious position of man within nature from Henri-Georges Clouzot; the clammy paranoia from the works of Boileau and Narcejac, as filtered into cinema by both of the aforementioned. However, at no point does the film feel unoriginal. From the opening shots of a car winding through snowy mountain passes, echoing the beginning of the aforementioned Shining, Jacoulot is in complete control of his work. The stark, haunting environs of the Pyrenees give the film an almost unique geographical identity. Later scenes in Andorra are equally idiosyncratic, the bright colours of the town appearing as an incongruous dismal Las Vegas in contrast with the bleak but beautiful whiteness elsewhere. Scenes which might have looked like pale imitations of past masterpieces in the hands of lesser filmmakers come across as new and fresh. A good example of this would be a scene late on in the film where the camera hovers above the benighted hotel: the darkness of the scene, its surprising length and some fabulous music work render the familiar shot pleasingly unrecognisable.

The director’s impeccable craft aside, the film really hangs on its three leads, and more specifically the two men. Fortunately, both turn in performances which more than match the originality of Jacoulot’s vision. Jean-Pierre Bacri, a highly regarded French actor, brings a dangerous charisma to his role as the manipulative hotelier desperate to protect his family, veering between loveable and menacing in an instant. The young intern who becomes part of his machinations is played by relative newcomer Vincent Rottiers, who portrays his complex character with exactly the right blend of cocksure and nervous energies. Rottiers’s is definitely a name to watch. The final principal character is that of the policewoman, whose slightly hackneyed brand of physical aloofness masking shrewd competence (see Columbo) is vibrantly taken on and revitalised by Sylvie Testud. A rising star, Miss Testud last impressed with her performance as a woman possibly cured by a miracle in Lourdes, and here offers something entirely different but equally captivating with her relatively minor role.

A mention too must go to the film’s music, which takes the bombast of scores like that from Shutter Island and fashions it into something genuinely affecting. The music itself is supported by some magnificent sound design. Indeed, so much of the film is flawless that it is hard to find fault. A burst of violence towards the finale and certain characters’ actions do not ring entirely true, but nothing punctures the delicious atmosphere. Jacoulot has made something which feels incredibly special, and although it is still early in the year, I predict that people will remember this one when it comes to reviewing the year’s successes.

At once familiar and refreshingly new, Raphaël Jacoulot’s second film highlights several new talents to watch, and some older ones to cherish.



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