Any director working from as thin a premise as that which tries to undergird the nominal thriller “The Page Turner” better have style to burn, or at least the good sense to get the film over with as quickly as possible. Denis Dercourt‘s sadly lacking in the former department, though, having managed to dispatch his tale of an aspiring pianist’s revenge on the famed performer who unthinkingly crushed her dreams in a brief eighty minutes, seems to have realized, to a certain degree, the limitations of his material.
Deborah Francois, who, after her stunningly unself-conscious debut in the Dardennes‘ “L’Enfant,” seemed destined to enter into the orbit of those singular Bressonian heroines (plucked from obscurity and offered the chance to burn the screen brightly before fading into obscurity, like Florence Delay, Nadine Nortier), instead seems to be actively consolidating her status as ingenue. Instead of the reckless, headlong abandon of her Sonia, thwarted musician Melanie Prouvost< is a model of icy calculation; blonde hair pulled back, eyes lowered and inscrutable, mouth pursed below eerily symmetrical cheekbones. Her target for ruination is Catherine Frot‘s acclaimed concert pianist Ariane Fouchecourt, who, years prior, in an opening sequence notable mostly for its ham-fisted overdetermination, distracted young Melanie during her conservatory audition, thus ending the girl’s music career forever. Francois, at only nineteen, and graced with her second Cesar nomination for “The Page Turner,” is already an actress to reckon with, and her scenes with Frot, which Dercourt increasingly sexualizes as the film wears on, are a mild treat unto themselves, even as the narrative they’re enslaved to grows increasingly less plausible.
Melanie begins insinuating herself in Ariane’s life through an internship at the law firm run by Jean Fouchecourt (an always game Pascal Greggory). It’s not long before she’s shyly volunteered herself to care for Ariane and Jean’s son for a month, and has been relocated to the Fouchecourt estate outside of Paris. Ariane, injured in a hit-and-run accident a few years prior (Dercourt leaves the question of Mélanie’s involvement slyly unanswered) is largely left to her own devices by her careerist husband, and is struggling to regain her confidence and right her music career on the eve of a crucial concert. Enter beautiful young Melanie, ready and willing to take on the crucial role of necessary rock to any good pianist: the page turner…
Despite the unquestionable importance of this position, to an outsider not as well-versed in the world of classical performance, the hushed reverence with which the new page turner is spoken of, and how instantaneous her effects on Ariane turn out to be, seem more than a hair silly, even within the context of a by-the-numbers thriller. (It may be subtitled, but don’t be fooled: “The Page Turner” isn’t a great deal more sophisticated than “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.”) This wouldn’t be a bad thing, if Dercourt took the low road to camp ecstasy as Jean-Claude Brisseau might have – imagine the turn of each page coupled with the shudder of an orgasm. Even Chabrol would have leavened the proceedings a bit with a few gags, and plumbed more fully the class stratification lurking around the edges in his revenge play. But Dercourt, only now seeing U.S. release with this, his fifth feature, plugs resolutely, stubbornly forward, convinced that whooshing strings and portentous camera movements offer the potential to cover up for the utter lack of thrills. Needless to say, it doesn’t work, though Francois just nearly carries the day.
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.]