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Faces In The Crowd (2011)
Director: Julien Magnat

review by Ian Sales

The brain is a complex organ, and not yet fully understood. It can go wrong in many different and peculiar ways. Prosopagnosia, or face blindness, is one such way. Sufferers cannot read faces and are unable to recognise people, even people they have known for a very long time. It's a condition ripe for drama though it's one that does not appear to have been much used. Perhaps that's because of the difficulty of getting across that face blindness to the viewer. In Faces In The Crowd, Julien Magnat has used an obvious trick to represent the alienation suffered by those with prosopagnosia. It's effective, but it also demonstrates perhaps why face blindness is only infrequently used as a dramatic device.

Anna Marchant (Milla Jovovich) has a good life. She's been together with her present boyfriend Bryce (Michael Shanks) for a year, and it looks like this relationship could be the one. She has a job she loves as a teacher at a primary school. And she has her girls' nights out with her friends Francine (Sarah Wayne Callies), and Nina (Sandrine Holt). But, after one such night out, Anna witnesses a serial killer - dubbed Tearjerker Jack by the press - and his latest victim, and while trying to escape, she falls from a bridge and takes a mighty whack to the head. When Anna later wakes up in hospital, she finds herself surrounded by strangers... although they insist they are Bryce, Francine and Nina. Anna is now suffering from prosopagnosia.

Magnat uses a simple trick to get this across. Whenever Anna meets people she knows, they are played by different actors. Though they dress similarly and wear their hair the same, their faces are different. It confuses Anna; it also confuses the viewer. And so Anna's estrangement from her life becomes the viewer's estrangement from the story. The film focuses on Anna because she is its one constant, and it's only by following her, and watching her use various devices to offset her condition, that the viewer can do the same. It makes for an effective means of dramatising face-blindness.

When Anna meets Detective Sam Kerrest, who is investigating the Tearjerker Jack murders, he finds it hard to believe that though Anna had a good look at the serial killer, she can't identify him. Likewise sceptical is Kerrest's sidekick, FBI profiler Lanyon (Sebastian Roberts). Meanwhile, Anna must learn to live with her condition. Fortunately, her boyfriend wears distinctive ties all the time, so by drawing a quick sketch of the one he is wearing she can 'recognise' him in a crowd. He mistakenly believes her prosopagnosia is cured, and is understandably upset when he discovers this is not the case.

And then Anna discovers that she can recognise Kerrest. According to the psychiatrist (Marianne Faithfull) who explains Anna's condition to her, there is "one face in a thousand" that she will continue to recognise despite her face-blindness. It seems Kerrest is that face. Of course, in real-world prosopagnosia the condition applies to all faces. No one is special. But in the film, this exception is used to push Anna and the detective together romantically. At which point, Faces In The Crowd turns into an average thriller and its central conceit no longer becomes the focus of the story. The third act sees Tearjerker Jack playing murderous games with Anna, and the arc to the eventual confrontation turns boringly predictable; as is the result of that confrontation.

Magnat has used an inventive means of presenting a protagonist suffering from prosopagnosia but, unfortunately, marrying this with a standard thriller plot means the film turns dull in its final act. Jovovich is convincing in the lead, though many of the supporting cast seem better suited to a television show than a feature film. Kerrest is a stereotypical detective, and the serial killer is a stereotypical serial killer. It's only Anna's condition, and the presentation of it, that lifts Faces In The Crowd above similar films. And even then it's only for half its length. The end result resembles a made-for-television movie with an under-used neat gimmick. It could have been so much more.

Faces in the Crowd

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