Saturday 2 February 2013

The French Spy (2012)

Director: Travis Mills
Stars: Xavier Christian, Stacie Stocker, Michael Hanelin and Maryam Cné

A fresh month means a fresh review of a Travis Mills movie and this one's a challenging one. I watched it last year but didn't get it, so I let it sit for a while and came back later. Unfortunately I still don't get it and writer/director Mills is keeping tight lipped. The Running Wild site calls it 'a storytelling experiment in structure', which is clear enough, the ten minute running time split up into three sections, The Fall of Man, Crucifixion and Resurrection, suggesting a Biblical theme. However the story, if we can call something so abstract and disconnected a story, has no obvious Biblical connotations, instead providing a modern day spy plot. The title could refer to one of two different characters, though the IMDb synopsis hints at one. There are three acts, set up as slices of story rather than progressions, perhaps with the important bits skipped over. The score plays on for a while after the credits, inviting the fourth act to unfold in our ideas of what happens next.

Given that I still don't know what happens, even though I've seen The French Spy a few times, it's pretty clear that spoilers don't apply. The film feels like a riddle to be unravelled, though its very elusiveness may tie to there not being an answer. So I'll try to unravel it and Travis can laugh at how wide of the mark I'll surely end up. What we see is a man, played by Xavier Christian. He's in the park, reading Alan Furst, an American spy novelist, when a lady sits down next to him with a Georges Simonen. Neither speak French, or so they say, even though he sounds continental and her Maigret is in French. So she makes her offer in English. Later, he's chained up and bloody in someone's house, with a litany of his supposed exploits as a French spy being recounted back to him. The lady interrogates him in French. In the last act, he's in another lady's back garden, still bloody, when he's offered a drink. The end.
And so what does it mean? Clearly the Biblical framework has a purpose, but is it just a reference to the rise/fall/rise flow of the story or something deeper? Is it suggesting that our accused French spy isn't any such thing, by equating him with Jesus, who was persecuted for everyone else's sins? We know nothing about him, except that he sounds French and reads spy novels. The lady calls him Jean-Pierre but that doesn't have to be his name. Could this all be a mistake, perhaps a social commentary on the Khalid el-Masri case, where a Lebanese born German citizen was mistakenly assumed to be a terrorist, spirited away to a clandestine black site in Afghanistan and tortured by the CIA before being released without warning at night in Albania? Perhaps the information we're given is deliberately lacking to put us into his shoes. It must be disconcerting to say the least for an innocent man to be given an accounting of someone else's sins.
Perhaps the French spy is really the lady in the park, who certainly doesn't tell him the truth. The outcome of that first act is for him to become a bloody mess, presumably on her orders, if not at her hands. As she's clearly equated with Eve, whose inquisitiveness got our entire race kicked out of the garden, is her apparently violent sidekick the snake? Are they going all Old Testament on their victim's ass while he passively endures as the New Testament man of peace? It's hard to tell without seeing any of the material that ought to sit between the first and second acts. Still more frustrating is what's absent from between the second and third. Does the final act mean that they let him go or that he fought his way free, against the sort of odds that only a real spy might have a chance at. He does speak one line in French, after all. Is his ending smile the acknowledgement of a cycle beginning again, sly satisfaction at success over enemies or just happiness at freedom?

These may (or may not) be good questions, but I don't have good answers. This clearly isn't about sparkling dialogue, but everything we see and hear appears to be very deliberate. Christian plays a capable mystery man and Stacie Stocker does well in two languages as the lady who really does speak French. Her sidekick is Michael Hanelin, from The Memory Ride, who is believably someone you don't want to look up at from a chair you've been tied to. Maryam Cné completes the cast as the young lady at the end. Maybe it's all a con and she's really the French spy because, hey, she has an accent on her awesome last name. With the story cut down to the quick and its supporting material gone, it's hard to know if they've done their jobs right or not but I presume they did fine. Maybe the key to it all is in the fourth act, the one that plays out after the movie is over but the music continues on, improvised in our imaginations from a theme by Travis Mills.

The French Spy can be viewed for free at YouTube.

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