The Last Diamond (Le dernier diamant)

France (2014) Dir. Eric Barbier

One thing you can’t accuse Eric Barbier of is rushing things. In his 26-year career, he has directed just five films; if he moved any faster he’d stop. Or maybe we should look at it as “quality over quantity”? Of Barbier works, I’ve only seen 2006’s The Serpent which I enjoyed, so maybe this will be worth the wait.

Simon Carrerra (Yvan Attal) is a convicted thief on parole yet shows no signs of going straight. His partner-in-crime Albert (Jean-François Stévenin) has secured them both a gig with a group planning to steal the Florentine diamond, worth €40 million. Prior to the auction, the woman in charge suddenly dies, leaving her daughter Julia Neuville (Bérénice Bejo) to take over.

By posing as a security expert, Simon gains Julia’s trust and easily gains access to the bespoke key that unlocks the case the diamond is locked in to make a copy. The night of the auction is when the heist will take place but it soon transpires that not everybody is on the same page, and when individual greed comes to the forged, strange alliances are forged in the name of revenge.

There is no escaping the safe ground Barbier has taken with the main framework of the heist movie, but before writing off the conventional storyline it deserves saying that Barbier and co-writers Tran-Minh Nam and Marie Eynard do spice things up by throwing a few curveballs to steer the direction a little off centre. In essence, we have a film that can be broken down into three parts – the set up, the heist and the aftermath.

It is the maverick move of having the heist take place mid-film and not save it until the end which is the usual form, which provides the fresh twist required to swerve audience expectations and genre conventions. This allows for the rarely explored scenario of what happens to the victims after the robbery and to eke out the inevitable betrayal of the thieves themselves, again traditionally a last minute twist to close the film on.  

Such risks require a convincing pay-off to keep the audience invested and this is where the film with begin to divide opinion. The final act sees some drastic personality changes and curious decisions being made that may yield results but not without compromising the characters and their integrity, not to mention the integrity of the film too.

The very nature of this tale requires some suspension of disbelief, especially towards the advanced technology used in the preparation and execution of the theft, although real life cyber hacking has forced a tapering of this gap between reality and fiction. Ingenious and elaborate ideas are abound to allow Simon to obtain vital information – such as the combination Julia’s safe – that we hope don’t inspire any genuine criminals watching.

Conversely, it is simple things like Simon’s subtle make-up and intensive research of the Neuville family business that affords him easy access into Julia’s employ and later, her bed. Unfortunately, of all the trite plot developments, this old chestnut is thrown into the mix to sharpen the knife in Julia’s back – and heart – when she discovers she’s been had. This plays a part in the questionable direction of the denouement as discussed earlier.

Putting this gripe aside, the build-up to the heist, including the breakdown of all the key stages and the various extraneous details which seem innocuous but are actually vital to its success, is fascinating. No wonder they call people “criminal masterminds” – the level of innovation, creativity, resourcefulness and commitment to their cause is admirable, it’s just a shame that morally it is reprehensible.

The robbery itself is again subject to painstaking planning, gradually revealing the extent of the network involved in it, both on the inside and outside, climaxing with a superb twist that hopefully you don’t see coming. Perhaps it says something of Barbier and his writers that their ideas are so credible that they have a criminal side to them just itching to burst free, but for sheer invention this is impressive work.

Because of the many stages of the heist, the switching from various scenes and keeping track of the all of the designed distraction while the crew get to work, it would have been easy for this to be a convoluted mess on screen, but Barbier has it all worked out with the same precision as the criminals. The audience is very much in the moment of this audacious act whilst being overwhelmed by the pandemonium in a tightly edited and slickly executed set piece.

With one act left after the heist, we have the rare opportunity to look at how it affects the victims, in this case Julia. Not only is she heartbroken and humiliated but also facing charges of being complicit due to her trust in Simon. This could have gone a number of ways but as a crime thriller, instead of taking this to court, we instead stick with the duplicity and violence beholden to the genre.

Quite often in films, the performances can make all the difference in saving a film from being a complete write off – not that this applies here, but the cast do deliver beyond the safety of the script. Yvan Attal (who also starred in The Serpent) has a flexible face that can switch between evil, charming and comic with ease, all three of which are on display in his turn as Simon.

As the sole main female character, Bérénice Bejo is naturally radiant but hardly token totty, never once shown in a glamorous or eye candy light, instead sticking true to Julia’s confident and ambitious business drive. This makes her falling for Simon unrealistic but she and Attal work well together to forgive this, except for the ending.

A difficult genre to break new ground in, The Last Diamond is a solid entry that offers sufficient entertainment wrapped up in a slickly presented package.

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