There is something irresistibly romantic about the concept of the double agent, and it’s a narrative that has lent itself to some dramatic cinematic incarnations. It speaks of intrigue, subterfuge, and inner conflict as the pressure of deceiving people who come to trust you tests the strength of your loyalty to bosses and ideologies that begin to seem very far removed. It’s a shame, then that the latest entry into this subcategory, Elie Wajeman‘s “The Anarchists,” should be so inert, especially considering the caliber of onscreen talent and the fascinating, relatively little-seen historical period it mines. Detailing a policeman’s efforts to infiltrate a radical anarchist group in 1899 Paris, it is a film that could have used some of the passion, conviction, and fire in the belly of its protagonists.
There are different ways to approach the “undercover agent” storyline, and Wajeman, in a decision that is characteristic of his linear approach overall, chooses the most straightforward. Ruling out the possibility of a third-act rug pull, we know that Corporal Jean Albertini (Tahar Rahim) is a police officer from the very beginning, as we see him recruited by his ornery captain to go undercover and infiltrate the local anarchist scene. Considering himself apolitical at heart, Jean takes a cover job as a grunt in a nail factory and spots an early opportunity to ingratiate himself with Biscuit (Karim Leklou) a somewhat boorish but well-meaning friend of Elisee (Swann Arlaud), the co-worker Jean suspects of being an anarchist organizer. For undefined reasons, Elisee takes to Jean immediately, deciding in the face of suspicion from some of the group’s other key members, to favor and trust him above everyone else. Which is unfortunate for him because soon Jean is reporting on his every move back to his police captain, and shagging his girlfriend Judith (Adele Exarchopoulos).
Judith is herself a progressive-minded idealist, committed to the egalitarian ideals espoused by the group at a time when women were scarcely out of bustles, still in corsets and had little part to play in public life. But while Exarchopoulos is an interesting choice for the role, as she brings an effortless modernity and naturalism to Judith, the script underserves her sorely and undercuts not just her behavior but even her motivation almost from the very first breath. In a conceit that’s never adequately explained, but reused a couple of times thereafter, the prologue is her being interviewed about the group, and her ideals, which not only seems to suggest we’ll be favoring her point of view on events from then on (we don’t) it also suggests she will play a key role in the more dramatic moments (she doesn’t). Asked to account for her involvement with the anarchists, a dreamy look steals over her face as she explains she “did it for love.” Which, well, sigh.
The love she’s referring to is presumably that which existed between Elisee and her, though it seems a long time since there’s been any particular spark there, and the vaguely consumptive Elisee is subject to spells of ill health and fits, making the relatively robust Jean seem like a far more attractive proposition. Soon they’re stealing burning looks at each other, prior to consummating their illicit affair, although all of this makes it sound a lot hotter and heavier than it really is. Rahim and Exarchopoulos are both talented actors, and both people who are nice to look at, but there never exists any real chemistry between them, and they feel oddly mismatched onscreen. In contrast to the genuine crackle found between Rahim and Exarchopoulos’ ‘Blue is the Warmest Color” co-star Lea Seydoux in Rebecca Zlotwoski’s underseen “Grand Central,” the torrid love triangle aspect of the story here is a frictionless affair. And that is an issue, because the film is so plodding in regards to its politics, and so airless with respect to its broader historical context, that it seems this rather color-by-numbers love story is supposed to occupy most of our attention.
Wajeman’s formal experimentation begins and ends with use of a couple of anachronistic tracks to power along certain stretches of action. But with no other hint that he’s pursuing an avant-garde agenda, they just seem jarringly out of place, though the use of The Kinks‘ “I Go To Sleep” had a soupcon of unintentional comedy value. in all other respects, the film is guilty of the same dissembling that Rahim’s Jean is accused of (correctly) at one point by a suspicious interlocutor: “You think a flat cap and a scarf make you an anarchist?” he sneers. Of course they don’t, and neither do pretty camerawork by David Chizallet and excellent costumes and sets make “The Anarchists” a compelling film. Not to suggest that form must always follow content, but this is a film about radicals so conservatively delivered that we might suspect it of having a very reactionary agenda, were it not for the sneaking suspicion that, like Rahim’s empty vessel lead, it has no politics at all. Vive la apathy! [C+]