Scribe (La mécanique de l’ombre)

France (2016) Dir. Thomas Kruithof

There is an inherent problem with the command hierarchy in the workplace where those at the very top tend to operate on their own terms with those beneath limited to a “need to know” basis. Yet, when the brown stuff hits the fan it is always the worker drone at the bottom of the heap who probably did need to know but didn’t who pays the price.

Having worked himself into a breakdown, mild mannered bookkeeper Duval (François Cluzet) is now two years unemployed and a one-year recovering alcoholic. Living alone in small apartment with his jigsaw puzzles and insomnia, Duval gets a mysterious call late one night from a man named Clément (Denis Podalydès) offering him a job.

Despite his reservations, Duval attends the interview and is given the job of transcribing tapes of tapped phone conversations, following a strict regime to ensure total secrecy. For the first few days, everything goes without issue, until he discovers one of the people he’s been listening too has been killed. Duval tries to resign but this only leads to the beginning of his problems.

I must confess to have not seen Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, plot points from which I understand are echoed in this French thriller marking the debut for writer-director Thomas Kruithof. For my own personal point of reference, I found the stark sterility of Duval’s spartan apartment “office” and the austerity of Clément’s exacting demands akin to the solitary, detachment of the modern German classic The Lives Of Others.

In the latter half of the film, the plot veers off into a labyrinthine game of political intrigue with a touch of Hollywood palpable in the staged climax that feels at odds with the quiet and steady build up of tension in the early going. Most of this is courtesy of François Cluzet’s Dustin Hoffman-esque ability to play the average Joe and be totally believable no matter how ludicrous the situation becomes.

Duval’s initial stress induced breakdown is covered in the opening by way of illustrating his strong work ethic and inability to say “no” to the boss, having an important report dumped on him with no notice by his manager as he is off for the night. A montage of Duval phoning a colleague for help and only getting the answer phone while struggling to find the vital folders concludes with a comatose Duval in an office full of discarded files.

Even achieving sobriety through AA meetings seems like it was for the benefit of group leader Albert (Daniel Hanssens), given Duval’s easily compliant nature that newcomer Sara (Alba Rohrwacher) asks if he does everything Albert tells him to. Therefore, accepting Clément’s job offer was typical for Duval which Clément was presumably already aware of.

Comparisons to the aforementioned Coppola film would be heightened by the archaic technology at Duvals’ disposal, namely a typewriter and cassette tape player. There is no outside contact, no mobile phones allowed, no smoking and the time kept strictly to a 9-6 schedule. When Duval arrives one morning to a note reminding him of the no smoking rule, he is a little perturbed.

It turns out the rule breaker is Gerfaut (Simon Abkarian), Duval’s brusque immediate superior answering only to Clément, which Duval doesn’t dare question. After one tape catches Gerfaut’s attention which he demands to take, one person on it is reported dead the next day in the press, causing Duval to rethink his employment.

Gerfaut says he’ll take care of it but ask a last favour of Duval which proves to be the catalyst for this oblique job turning into a nightmare of dizzying proportions. Having declared no political allegiance to Clément in his interview, Duval is now forced to choose a side when Gerfaut’s actions blow a hole in the secrecy of the operation, alerting the police to their presence.

We know there had to be a purpose behind the phone tapping and clandestine working practices but up to this point, the intercepted dialogue gives little away (and I won’t elaborate either) but quite how it threatens the national security of France is not made clear at this juncture. But, given the current political climate there is an element of plausibility which would have been lost had it led to an outlandish conspiracy theory.

Sadly the film then dissolves from a taut, enigmatic mood piece into a full on mystery thriller once the police get involved and Duval becomes a pinball bounced from side to side in the name of survival. He is asked to trust his employer for fear of death and the police for fear of a jail sentence but neither side can offer a guarantee that suits Duval himself, which surely would make the poor guy top himself just to escape the pressure.

Also shunted rudely to the sidelines is the relationship between Duval and Sara which wasn’t really going anywhere but was equally curious given Sara’s fragile mien and ambiguous presence. Instead she becomes a token pawn in the game to galvanise Duval but with no established bond relayed at any point we are hard pressed to feel the threat posed by this as anything other than superficial.

Having said that, the ideas are cogent and worth exploring but maybe Kruithof designed the reserved style of the first half to be the calm before the storm. Could it have been resolved without the guns and car chase developments? Maybe more than 87 minutes was needed to build the character up more? At least the cast are all on stirring form, with François Cluzet leading from the front as the emotional fulcrum and civilian heart.

For a debut effort Thomas Kruithof has made a perfectly sufficient if overly ambitious mystery thriller in Scribe, possessing all the right ingredients for a great film but falters by striving to reach beyond his experience level. There is more to praise than criticise, just be wary of the tonal and style shift in the second half.