The idea of a protagonist murdering another character and assuming their identity isn’t an original one.
Patricia Highsmith’s twice filmed novel, The Talented Mr Ripley, is perhaps the best example of this set up, and while this French adaptation of American author Douglas Kennedy’s 1997 novel ploughs the same furrow, it does so with an altogether duller instrument.
The usually dependable Romain Duris is Paul, a big shot corporate lawyer whose life isn’t what he wanted it to be – we know this because within the first five minutes of L'homme qui voulait vivre sa vie we’re bombarded with visual cliché after cliché, which are supposed to provide psychological insight.
First, Paul pushes the speed up higher and higher on his running machine (because he’s stuck in a rut, you see), and then he’s off to gaze forlornly at a photograph from his past (because it is a window into a time when he was happy, of course).
This is the kind of bland signposting that would receive derisive snorts of disapproval if it were Will Smith on screen in a generic Hollywood thriller – why should it fly in a supposedly ‘classy’ French version of the same?
Melodrama on top of melodrama: Paul's mentor, friend and boss announces that she’s dying. That this person is played by Catherine Deneuve – who looks the picture of health throughout, at some significant remove from the grim reaper’s cold grip – stretches credulity just a tad.
But anyway – Paul has a couple of children he mucks around with adorably (or gratingly, depending on your temperament) and a cold wife who is, of course, having an affair. He finds out, she leaves, and then he accidentally murders her lover.
I say accidentally because Paul is such a passive wimpy milksop of a 'hero' that nothing in The Big Picture ever really happens because of any decision on his part. Aside from when he decides, as one would, to adopt the identity of the murdered lover who incidentally happens to be a photographer of some renown.
Paul does so without considering the inevitable consequences, of course – that someone might just Google this famous photographer’s image, a point of some potential suspense that crops up later on only to be dismissed out of hand.
And there’s the rub – the suspense. In the hands of an Alfred Hitchcock or a Brian DePalma, there are a half dozen sequences here that would otherwise leave your nerves in shreds.
Unfortunately, director Eric Lartigau (best known in France for his comedies) shoots these scenes in a tension free and pedestrian manner. Evidently, he prefers repeated and prolonged shoots of Romain Duris either twisted with emotional turmoil, driving a car, or doing both at the same time.
The only time there’s any spark of life to the dull and drably shot proceedings is when Niels Arestrup (from Un Prophète, among other films) turns up, fat and old and pissed and insulting. True, his character is a big cliché too, but at least there’s some life to him. And the arrival of such a character makes plain just how much time has been spent lingering over Duris’ tear-tracked and anguished face.
You would be forgiven for thinking that with a cast full of French cinema talents, The Big Picture couldn’t help but to be gripping or emotionally arresting or, at the very least, visually accomplished, but you would be wrong. No doubt there will be another film along in no time at all to make better use of the cream of France’s acting talents, but this isn’t it.
The Big Picture runs in Queen's Film Theatre from August 12 – 18.