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The Serpent (2007)
Director: Eric Barbier
review by Paul Higson
Spoiler Alert!Eric Barbier's The Serpent is a massively entertaining French thriller to which my awarding of a four star rating was seemingly in the bag. Reviewing the film one day after seeing it, I find myself in the odd position of turning on the film. I feel like a bit of a snake for doing it but even as I watched the film it was impossible to miss the wrongful elements, cheats in the plot. I was willing to overlook them at the time, the film bobbing along excitingly for us as it was. It was a distinct possibility that the film might not stand up to further investigation, a repeat viewing. In the passage of a day, not only do those elements come back and niggle one, repeatedly, but also other nonsenses arise to add concern.
I should go with my original sensations, but there is a fear that by not addressing the thoughtless bumbling I might myself appear foolish. There are problems with the storytelling on The Serpent that had they occurred in a Hollywood movie then critics would have savaged that film. Can The Serpent really have had excused its inconsistencies and incredulities merely because it is a French film? Surely not... Once reviewed, my nagging will come to an end and it may even allow me, in the evidence of a record of my concerns, to get on with enjoying the film when next we meet. Where does that leave the observers who fail to set the record straight?
The Serpent sets itself up well with all the right ingredients; a scam involving a beautiful young woman named Sofia (the preposterously gorgeous Olga Kurylenko), shots of humour and scenes of mystery. Family man Vincent Mandel (Yvan Attal) is going through a messy divorce from his German wife, Helene (Minna Haapkyla). It was her wealthy father that originally set Vincent up in a successful photography career, specialising in advertising and glamour. He loves his children and if Helene gets custody of them she is removing them to Germany.
Vincent finds himself alone with Sofia in his studio one evening, she having arrived informing him that she is a replacement for the expected, agreed model. His assistants have been hospitalised by a mugger and unreachable for the duration of the shoot. Sofia comes on to him, he responding, and she curtailing it by gouging his neck with her fingernails. The next day he is arrested for rape, the charges dropped, Sofia contacting him again to inform him that there are people out to ruin him. The idiot then falls unconscious, drugged, and is set up for a sequence of bondage photographs with the girl.
She is leaving as he regains the use of his limbs and he pursues her only for her to slip seemingly to her immediate death. He reports the fatal accident to his friend and lawyer Sam (Simon Abkarian) but when he arrives there is no body. No body, that is, until he is returning home by car when he is rear-ended by another vehicle and the body is revealed to be in his boot. The other driver is Joseph Pender (Clovis Cornillac) who went to school with Mandel. Pender accepts responsibility for the accident and in the night slinks into the Mandel family grounds, accesses the vehicle and has the boot mended and body disposed of. Pender is out to destroy Mandel and the reasons will eventually come. In the meantime two hours are filled with incidents and action. There is no stoppage, no downtime, and the pace is excellent. It is the petty betrayal of sense in order to cram in all the twists and direct film to a designated conclusion that are the problem.
The Serpent is one in a spate of recent quality thrillers from France, films that include the Hitchcockian Harry, He's Here to Help, the enthralling Red Lights, the weird mystery of Lemming and the recent, exhilarating 'wrong man' vehicle Tell No One. The latter is the one that bears the most significant comparison to The Serpent, as The Serpent too is, eventually, a bloke on the run adventure. Tell No One is more progressive and contains sequences that render it more unusual, whereas The Serpent is efficient but routine. Tell No One embraced the modern setting very cleverly, its protagonist a general practitioner who had previously saved the life of the boy of a street hoodlum the story sees the hoodlum heavily indebted to him enough that when the doctor is on the run he can turn to the hoodlum and his gun-toting cohorts for assistance for at least some of the escape.
The Serpent is adapted from the novel Pender by Ted Lewis, who also authored the original story from which Get Carter was drawn. Pender was written in the 1990s but set in the 1960s and in updating it Eric Barber and Tran-minh Nam came to one of their stupidest decisions. Pender is also blackmailing an elderly solicitor who wears a hearing aid and has been met by Mandel. Later when Mandel's innocence is dependent on the elderly solicitor he needs to identify him and recalls the make of hearing aid stomped underfoot by Pender during that encounter. So, what is his move? Assuming that this was an episode also included in the original novel, I have not read it, one assumes that the UK 1960s setting the Mandel character might have broken into a small firm's ground floor office and rifled its few files for those who could afford something better than a ear trumpet.
With no security and CCTV he may even have been able to settle there the night. Clearly, in 2007 the modern Mandel, who also has as clues the first and last letter of the mystery solicitor's name, might think to phone the local law firms and practices, there can't be that many. He would casually enquire of a lawyer he can't recall the name of, 'but it begins with 'C' and he is elderly and... oh, deaf in one ear, that's right, he wears a hearing aid, do you know who he might be?' If he is not with that firm, the circles are small and that first call would probably identify him. But no, the writers put Mandel in disguise and send him into the multi-storey offices of the hearing aid manufacturers, faking an appointment and tucking himself away until dark. He then accesses the computers, which conveniently can't be arsed with passwords, to locate a... voila!... possible name, Cendras (Pierre Richard), who had ordered a new lugaphone the day after the breakage incident. His presence in the building gets him into a tussle with a security guard. The writers are blinkered in the adaptation, but not only that, they are stuck in a groove by the favoured denouement too.
The makers wanted this film to end with a standoff. They want the family imperilled, the husband to locate them at the crucial moment and the marriage saved. Tall order! This all runs against logic or sense with everything that occurs between the beginning and that end to the film. As one watches one is aware of this. If he really cared for his family he would have instructed them to leave for Munich immediately and pick up his life again, if possible, when the current crisis has been dealt with. I am thinking this halfway through watching the film, and the protagonist should be thinking it as soon. Helene is equally fallacious in her doings, entrusting Pender to watch over her (protecting her from whom, exactly?) when she has already questioned his behaviour, particularly his twilight borrowing and fixing of the car episode, a troubling action on many levels.
Most absurd of all when the wife and kids are suffocating if not freezing to death in a fridge freezer, Mandel is allowed to find them. OK, the police are failing to locate them but Mandel has taken a bullet in the thigh. In the real world he would have no say in it and have been whisked to hospital where surgeons would try to save his leg. In Eric Barbier's daft universe his protagonist is obviously an easy congealer. They close with the couple in the ambulance, hands finding one another, whereas again, in the real world, it would be the final nail in the coffin of their relationship: 'You stupid bastard, bringing that fucking maniac into our house, endangering our children's lives, and what the hell were you thinking of... I don't care how old you were... that's no way to treat another human being! I don't want you anywhere near me or the kids!'
From here, I have left cinema and I am considering the film retrospectively. How about that great family scene at the beginning where Mandel loses the family's pink canary in the morning and goes out to purchase a replacement canary and proceed to paint it the right colour. It sets Mandel up as someone who is not the most intelligent person met. Even his daughter knows what he's done. He argues its the original bird, she counters that the small tin of red paint is still sitting on the breakfast table. It is funny. Establishing that he is not the brightest button is one thing but he goes well beyond that in his stupidity and he's not alone in the cast of characters.
We are later told that he always takes the children to school in the morning. I don't know what time the schools start in France or the shops open but I have serious doubts that he could go out and find a 24 hour pet store to furnish him with that canary and in time for him to paint it before the kids awaken. Barbier also tries to get away with other old standards like the escape into the crowd. Tell No One did that with more advantage (time and coverage) and a lot of assistance from the street gangs. Barbier is still writing for a 1940s' escape but even Hitchcock had rain and umbrellas. Mendel's escape begins on high with heavy police presence on the ground. He can't even disappear into a regular crowd. It's a sunny day and he runs crouched with a group of schoolchildren, then jumps into the driving seat of a taxi minutes after the alert is up and the police milling. How useless are these police in this film? Christ knows, how repeat viewings will hamper the film even more as other incredulous details come forward to scupper the story further.
It saddens me to do this to The Serpent, as it serves its purpose and was in the moment enjoyed enormously. I don't want to put people off going to the cinema to see it, as I had fun and so will they.
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