Every so often someone makes a movie that gets tagged as Hitchcockian—and it’s not always ultimately in the best interests of the filmmaker. Anyone remember Dominik Moll’s With a Friend Like Harry (2000)? My guess is that few do, despite the fact that it came complete with a slew of César nominations (nine in all) and awards, as well as being a contender for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Plus, it was a good movie. But since then, Moll has only made one other film, Lemming (2005), which barely got released in the U.S. and never played locally.
Now we have Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One, with the exact same number of César nominations and even more wins. Canet’s film can even more rightly be called Hitchcockian (though it occasionally reminded me of Brian De Palma’s underrated Femme Fatale (2002), which might be nearly the same thing). Let’s hope that M. Canet’s future is brighter than Moll’s has been, because he’s certainly delivered the goods with Tell No One, which is perhaps the most thoroughly enjoyable thriller I’ve seen in a long time.
Calling Tell No One Hitchcockian is apt without being exact. Yes, the film is suspenseful. Yes, it very much draws on the central Hitchcock theme of an innocent man being accused of a crime he didn’t commit and of which he has to clear himself (see The 39 Steps (1935), Young and Innocent (1937), Saboteur (1942), The Wrong Man (1956), North by Northwest (1959) etc.). And yes, the film is also firmly grounded in the Vertigo (1958) theme of a man who’s obsessed with a supposedly dead woman, affording the movie a sense of weightiness.
Yet I think it’s necessary to note that overall the film’s Hitchcock quality—unlike that of Moll’s With a Friend Like Harry—is essentially of the lighter variety. Despite the Vertigo connection, this is more like Hitch in his playfully entertaining mode. There are dark corners in Tell No One, but at bottom, it’s a slickly entertaining thriller that never forgets it’s a thriller, or that its primary purpose is to entertain the viewer.
Adapted—and transferred to new locales—from the American novel by Harlan Coben, the film tells the story of Dr. Alex Beck (François Cluzet) and his wife, Margot (Marie-Josée Croze, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). After the couple has an argument on a lakeside pier, Margot swims away to shore—only to be attacked (offscreen) and apparently murdered. Alex is himself injured, and spends several days in a coma. Eight years later, two bodies—one in possession of a key to Margot’s safe-deposit box—are accidentally unearthed on property adjoining the Becks’, causing the case to be reopened with Alex as a prime suspect. At the same time, Alex starts receiving e-mail communications—including the phrase, “Tell no one. They’re watching”—that are purportedly from Margot, along with a video link that shows her alive.
Who is watching, whether Margot is alive, what’s behind all this and what really happened eight years ago make up the bulk of the film’s convoluted—but by no means confusing—narrative. Canet makes the film seem even more convoluted by moving back and forth from present to past and location to location with unusual structural daring, but even this is coherent if you pay attention. You’re shown very little that is without a point—even if that point is to send you down the garden path. Even there, the red herrings are justifiable, and the film plays fair throughout—though I’m not prepared to say that there mightn’t be a couple of plot holes.
All in all, Tell No One is a wonderfully entertaining, occasionally very funny, always involving thriller that never insults your intelligence. Exceptionally well-defined characters (nearly every person seems “real”) played by actors up to the job of bringing them to life, along with exciting, stylish direction take the film into the realm of a must-see offering. Not rated, but contains nudity, sexuality, violence, grisly images and language.