Monday 7 December 2009

Room of Death (2007)

Director: Alfred Lot
Stars: Mélanie Laurent and Eric Caravaca
Room of Death, also known as the far less overt Melody's Smile on the festival circuit, likes playing with our expectations. We see a number of characters out of usual context, as if daring us to see a cliche here. There's a young girl, apparently stuck in a room where her mother is dead in the bath tub. She seems more upset that a fly dares to alight on her mother's corpse than the fact that there's a corpse to begin with, so she beats it to death with what appears to be extreme vengeance. A couple of juvenile delinquents tag a building and then go joyriding in a BMW, only they're far from juvenile and it appears to be their BMW. Another girl with gorgeous eyes, perhaps a kidnap victim, is gagged with tape, but the perpetrator is delicately brushing her hair. Finally a young lady cares for her eight month old twins, but she hasn't had a man for a year.

They all tie together, of course. The taggers are Vigo and Sylvain, who are pissed at being made redundant, and given that they promptly go driving off at high speed they end up doing precisely what you'd expect: they kill someone, at Mardyck down by the docks, at a hundred miles per hour with their lights off. In reality it's the film's executive producer, setting a cool trend in cameo appearances: imagine if Hitchcock had died in every one of his movies, for instance. In the story, he's a man trying to pay off a kidnapper, because the kidnap victim is his daughter, Melody Cunar, and he has a couple of million euros in his briefcase to get her back. Needless to say Vigo and Sylvain take the money, dump the body and unwittingly involve themselves in something far more serious even than what they've already got up to. The young lady with twins is Sgt Lucie Hennebelle, a rookie profiler, who's assigned to the case.

And it's a strange one. It would seem that the killer saw the accident, given that it happened right outside the room where he was waiting for the payoff. He killed Melody, but carefully and tenderly and waited around for an hour to hold her mouth in the shape of a smile so that rigor mortis would keep it that way. He even leaves her dressed as an Annabelle doll from the eighties, right down to the red ribbon over the heart. The killer left no prints but didn't seem to have been wearing gloves, suggesting that he had no prints to leave. The only thing left at the scene was wolf hair, presumably from a wolf that was stolen from the local zoo, also the scene of a bizarre incident with capuchin monkeys: the females were stolen, the males killed, drained of blood right there in their cage. What's more, Melody was blind and a second girl, a diabetic called Eléanore Monfraix, is soon kidnapped as well. The cops have 40 hours before her medication runs out.

This was highlighted as a European take on The Silence of the Lambs, which isn't entirely fair, even though Lucie's partner pulls a copy of it off her bookshelf to make it clear. Sure, we get a very capable but still rookie female cop tracking down a strange killer and Mélanie Laurent does look vaguely similar to Jodie Foster, but the similarities really end there, beyond some vague connections. Instead the story goes off in a number of strange and quirky directions, and while gender is one of them it's far from the only one. There's no locked up serial killer genius to visit for insight and there are many more motivations to dance with here, The Silence of the Lambs seeming almost polarised compared to this. There are only minor indications that Lucie has anything to prove, one of her colleagues being a chauvinist but her boss being a woman and one very eager to hear her opinions.

The tone is very different too, though both films share a notable tension. The Silence of the Lambs fits with a lot of American thrillers, utterly devoted to professionality, process and the drive behind both. Clarice Starling and Jack Crawford are professionals, believable ones with depth and character, but they're cops who happen to be people. Room of Death plays out with a far more low key tension, in fact delightfully so. These cops, Lucie Hennebelle and Pierre Moreno, are people who happen to be cops. They're just as professional but they don't simply ooze their work. Instead they go home, they see their families, they look after each other's kids, they have Christmas parties, albeit short working ones. They find time to smile, even given the work they do, but we're never thrown into a soap opera. They're still professionals who get the job done.

I was astounded by how good this film was. Channels like Sundance and IFC are showing a lot of great modern European films but even those that have resonated with me over time, like 13 Tzameti or Kontroll, weren't perfect, merely very very good films indeed. I'm not seeing the flaw here, albeit after a single viewing. Everything played right: the tone, the story, the soundtrack, the acting, the camerawork, the style, you name it. It was based on a novel by Franck Thilliez, who also wrote a film called Obsession(s) for French TV this year; and it was adapted and directed by Alfred Lot, who had previously been a second unit director or production manager, most prominently on Kiss of the Dragon and The Transporter. He has another film in post-production that I'll now be seriously watching out for, perhaps loosely translated as A Spot of Bother and scheduled for 2010.

I don't know any of the actors, though the leading lady, Mélanie Laurent, recently got a huge boost to her career playing the female lead in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, though she was already a multiple award winner courtesy of a 2006 film called Don't Worry, I'm Fine. She has credits going back to 1999 and has made over twenty films, none of which I've heard of, proving in itself yet again just how many films are being made in France nowadays. I see them, read up on them and yet they still keep on coming. The actors playing other cops are solid but they stay mostly in the background and give more opportunity to other members of the supporting cast. Jean-Pierre Gos is great fun as Van Boost, the zoo worker Lucie interviews, as is Jean-François Stévenin as Léon, the taxidermist he sends them to. Céline Sallette, Jonathan Zaccaï and Laurence Côte also shine, but nobody here lets the side down. I'd really like to see this again in a few years to see how well it stands up. I have a feeling it's going to stand up very well indeed.

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