Directed by Thomas Kruithof.
Starring Francois Cluzet, Denis Polyades, Sami Bouajila, Simon Abkarian and Alba Rohrwacher.
A burn-out leaves Duval (Francois Cluzet) recovering from alcoholism and unemployable. Seemingly out of the blue, he receives a job offer, transcribing recorded telephone conversations. He has no choice but to take it but quickly discovers that it has wider implications that will directly affect his own life.
Thomas Kruithof has chosen some hard acts to follow for his feature debut. In Scribe, he resurrects memories of classics like The Conversation and The Lives Of Others, with their deliberately overheard conversations and built-in paranoia. He risks simply going over old ground. What he delivers is stylish, gripping and sparse.
A lean, if not minimalist, film in so many ways, Scribe confines itself to just a scant 90 minutes, but Kruithof gets a lot out of a little. As Duval, the man at the centre of it all, Francois Cluzet is an understated everyman who reflects the film’s obsession with tiny detail and order. For Duval, it’s resulted in a breakdown, alcoholism and unemployment for the best part of two years. The only light in his life is that he’s been drink-free for a year: everything else is a mess, so he can’t refuse the chance of a job, even if it does come with strange restrictions. Transcribing recorded phone conversations: they’re all on individual tapes and he’s obliged to use a golf ball style typewriter. Only his headphones look contemporary and he’s also obliged to leave his mobile phone at home.
The context for his shady new job starts to unfold on his very first day, but through the news media. It’s a hostage crisis in the Middle East, based on real events from the mid-1980s when three French people were kidnapped but allegedly had their release held up for political reasons. For Duval, it means that he finds himself questioning who he’s actually working for and, ultimately, finds himself about to transcribe one of his own conversations.
The film comes full of details, character and atmosphere. The increasing tension and paranoia, coupled with the taut strings-based soundtrack, make for a compelling watch. Duval’s impassive expression only occasionally gives in to panic and desperation, while Sara (Alba Rohrwacher), his protégé from his alcoholics’ support group, has the right level of reticence and vulnerability. The camera has a fascination with the mechanical equipment, redolent of the 70s, that Duval has to use (the film’s French title is La Mecanique de L’Ombre). It goes deep inside the tape machine and shows us the intricate workings of the typewriter, especially when it starts to mis-behave.
On a larger scale, the visuals are equally impressive: a seemingly infinite row of files denoting Duval’s meltdown, an elegant drive through a curved tunnel are just a couple. And his isolation is reinforced by an unusually empty Paris: there are very few people around in any of the buildings or locations and, when there are, the only connection between them is violence.
With origins in surveillance thrillers and more politically orientated fare – think Bourne or John Grisham – Scribe’s love of the low-tech gives the story an almost retro feel, allowing the film to happily stand on its own feet, instead of being just another imitation.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★