Guillaume Canet‘s “Tell No One” begins with a certain nonchalance that one wouldn’t ordinarily expect from a suspense thriller, least of all one that adapts Harlan Coben‘s multi-twist mystery plotting with the brio of a distinctly “Bourne”-again action film. In its first minutes, the film draws us into a group of French yuppies summering enviably in woody Rambouillet. Kristin Scott-Thomas rolls a joint, someone passes a baby around, and all seems serene enough for Dr. Alex Beck to take his wife Margot for a languorous, moonlit skinny-dip at a nearby lake where they used to swim as children. How cruel it seems of Canet to ruin this moment, allowing Dr. Beck to be beaten unconscious and left naked on the dock, while Margot falls prey to a knife-wielding, cat-murdering serial killer.
Thus what begins as (and, to some extent, remains) a florid, Gallic “Big Chill,” soon becomes knotty and perverse, dragging its mournful hero through the pain of loss and then inauspiciously yanking him back again, eight years later, with a series of emails that may or may not be from his dead wife. “Tell no one,” she emails him (from the distinctly spam-filterable address “firstname.lastname@example.org”), and with mounting hope and paranoia, he begins a quest for verite that goes from procedural to proactive very quickly. When the police dig up new evidence that suggests he was responsible for Margot’s murder, Beck goes on the lam in a classic wrong-man mystery set-up, modernized tenuously by internet cafes, U2, and an audaciously staged pedestrian crossing of Paris’s Peripherique motorway with much collateral damage.
Of course, the blissful repose at the movie’s outset lasts only a few minutes, but it’s enough to haunt the rest of this swervy, crackling film with a twinge of innocence lost, which Canet exploits well. This is partly due to his actress, “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly“‘s Marie-Josee Croze, whose embodiment of Margot — as crush-object, as nostalgic memory, as rumor, as ghostly internet presence — exudes the kind of vampish slipperiness that’s normally reserved for femmes fatales in films like these. But it’s also due to Francois Cluzet, who portrays Beck, the kindly pediatrician, with a kind of hangdog, everyman charm that is wholly sympathetic, even when it strains credibility. One moment tending a child, the next moment leaping out of a window, Cluzet makes palpable a character prone to breaking into tears or into a run, as the need arises. Late in the film, when he ostentatiously and quite unexpectedly transforms into a balls-out action hero, it is his utterly ingenuous face, distractingly reminiscent of both John Kerry and Dustin Hoffman, that wins you over.
But if there’s any doubt, Canet has covered his bases with enough swooping camerawork, narrative smoke-and-mirrors, and quick-sketched supporting characters for a dozen thrillers. There is the aforementioned Ms. Scott-Thomas, who speaks French impeccably in her role as Beck’s sister’s caddish lesbian girlfriend, as well as the requisite policeman who believes in the hero’s innocence, the requisite rich bastard, and the requisite brutal assassin. (The latter is an inspired variation: a brutal, pressure-point-savvy lady-thug apparently named “Zak”.) Even if all of this demands a rather preposterous explanation, a wonderfully overblown coda, and a slightly overlong running time, it’s still enormously fun to watch, the kind of film that Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make, but which, in Canet’s hands, looks almost laid back.