French thriller, ‘The Big Picture,’ titillates

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Book-to-film adaptations are often ill-fated. The subtlest variations in dialogue compromise tone and intricate backstories of 100-plus pages are crowbarred into tidy, truncated sequences. But what if you radically change the setting altogether? America is swapped for France, and the late ’90s blossom into the contemporary age of social media. Such is the story of Eric Lartigau’s “The Big Picture,” a loose adaptation of Douglas Kennedy’s 1997 novel of the same title.

Though patient, Lartigau does not ration information. We learn everything we need to know about Paul Exben (Romain Duris) over a gripping half-hour. The magic is in watching him withhold this information from everyone else.

Paul’s typology is a familiar one. He is as bourgeois as they come: handsome, rich with two young kids. In choosing law over his passion (photography), Paul has avoided the failure that has befallen his wife, Sarah (Marina Fois), an unsuccessful writer. This existentialist crisis is important; it is as indigenous to France (via Sartre) as class consciousness is to England (via Dickens). And it explains why an American novel would befit a French adaptation.

The facade unravels when Paul learns that Sarah is cheating on him with Greg (Eric Ruf), a maddeningly smug photographer (“Do you want to share her?”). Then — and this is the “thriller” aspect of the film’s psycho-thriller taxonomy — in a skirmish, Paul accidentally kills Greg.

What follows is an exercise in aesthetics. Dialogue is minimal. Paul flees to the cerulean seas of the Adriatic coast (Kennedy’s novel finds the American equivalent in the far more terrestrial Montana). Under Greg’s name, Paul pursues photography. He loses the corporate Rod Blagojevich coif. In its place are tousled, then matted, curls. Every gaze grows more feral.

Thankfully, Paul stabilizes once he buys his camera. The irony is explicit: After killing a man, stealing his identity and cloistering himself in a remote location, Paul is at his freest. But there is an onerous downside: In addition to missing his kids, our bohemian bachelor is on perennial orange alert, fearful that his ruse will be laid bare.

Duris is exquisite here. Even if the film were a train wreck (it isn’t), Duris’ performance alone would merit a viewing. For a long stretch of time, we are given only his face to watch — and remarkably, it is all we need.

Well, almost. While the film compensates for the transition to a Gallic sensibility by dint of geography, it has not been readapted for the modern age.  Recall that Kennedy’s novel was published in 1997. (For reference, this was two years before the now laughably obsolete LiveJournal launched). Lartigau tries, with little success, to rectify this inconsistency. As Paul’s new friends confoundingly dismiss the lacunae in his biography (of which there are many), we wonder: How, in this epoch of Facebook and over-sharing, can Paul get away with masquerading as his wife’s dead ex-lover?

Alone, this implausibility would be trivial. But in the aggregate, Paul’s habitual serendipity becomes a handicap.  More distracting however, is the film’s unsatisfying ending.

Unpredictability in a film is gripping until it devolves into randomness. The film’s coda — specifically, the last quarter — is when the narrative, which had unfolded so organically for more than an hour, starts to feel formulaic. It grows too ambitious. Paul finds himself in hastily assembled scenarios, and the velocity of the concluding scenes outpaces the amount of action any film can comfortably hold.

But these are only blemishes for an otherwise spectacular film. Absurd at turns (though which psycho-thriller isn’t?), “The Big Picture” is worth watching. Duris’ prodigious talent redresses the misfires.

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