November 6, 2020

Film

Bookish intrigue: ‘The Mystery of Henri Pick’

By Harry Windsor
Image of still from The Mystery of Henri Pick

Image © Roger Arpajou / Gaumont

French filmmaker Rémi Bezançon’s charming literary whodunnit is his best film to date

Procedurals are everywhere on our television screens and devices. But they’re becoming less frequent, as a corollary, in our cinemas. That’s according to 49-year-old French filmmaker Rémi Bezançon, who thinks that producers and financiers are “afraid” of mystery and detective stories: why would punters venture out and buy tickets, after all, to watch the kind of meat-and-potatoes fare that dominates the libraries of streaming platforms everywhere?

The film adaptation of Jane Harper’s bestseller The Dry is about to answer that question in Australia, at least provisionally. But Bezançon’s fifth and best feature, Gallic whodunnit The Mystery of Henri Pick, is in local cinemas first, and it’s exactly the kind of well-tailored charmer that could entice the grey pound back to the box office. Set in Paris as well as Brittany, it’s both a slyly amusing commentary on the contemporary publishing scene as well as an old-fashioned mystery – only this particular mystery rests upon a question of authorship rather than murder.

An ambitious young Parisian publisher (Alice Isaaz) visits her father in Brittany, where she discovers an unpublished manuscript in the local library. She’s overwhelmed by the novel’s beauty, and is surprised to learn that its author, Henri Pick, is the town’s recently deceased pizza chef. His widow is shocked too; she never saw Henri write a word, or read one either. The book becomes a predictable sensation – the story of its provenance is a gift from the marketing gods – but the country’s most famous critic, Jean-Michel Rouche (Fabrice Luchini), isn’t buying it. He invites the widow onto his TV show and bluntly questions her husband’s bona fides. The widow storms out; Rouche’s wife, who found the book life-changing and is appalled by his cynicism, leaves him; then he gets fired. Scraping bottom, he decides to set out for Brittany to uncover the hoax.  

Bezançon wrote the script with his regular co-writer Vanessa Portal, and it has an unusual structure. In the book by David Foenkinos on which the film is based, Rouche isn’t introduced until halfway through. The screenwriters have expedited his introduction, but there’s still a sizable prologue in which he’s absent. They’ve also elongated the investigation. Doing so allowed Bezançon, who grew up reading Agatha Christie, to play around with the genre itself, planting red herrings and nodding to conventions while trying carefully, he says, to avoid outright pastiche.

What Bezançon likes about mystery stories is that they enlist the viewer as sleuth. “The spectator is looking for clues at the same time as the detective.” And the filmmaker was tickled by the idea of making the audience’s avatar somebody who is, at first glance, decidedly unsympathetic. “He’s sad, he’s not very happy in his work and in his home life. And I wanted him to be the catalyst [for the story], because he’s going to lose his wife, his job, his reputation. He’s going to get back up again thanks to the investigation proceeding.”

A character on the skids looking for redemption – it’s an archetypal set-up. But the film’s leading man brings plenty of idiosyncrasy to the role. Bezançon calls Luchini, known in France for his stage readings of Celine and Baudelaire et al., “the most literary actor in French cinema”. The director thought he was perfect for the part because he’s embedded in the literary culture of Paris, but there’s more to the actor’s performance than his evident comfort riffing on the prose style of Marguerite Duras. Luchini has the ability to look as though he’s perpetually on the verge of raising an eyebrow. His mischievous quality – the impish delight of some of his line readings – makes the snobbery palatable. Likewise the fact that Rouche has already been laid low by his own ego. “He looks,” the director says, “a bit… droopy”.

In Brittany, Rouche falls in with Pick’s daughter, a big reader (played by Camille Cottin, from Call My Agent!) who harbours doubts of her own but is nevertheless determined to defend her father’s name. She’s charmed by the critic despite herself, and the film seems briefly to flirt with a romance that never quite eventuates. Rouche arrives back in Paris thoroughly stumped, and the mystery’s resolution, when it arrives, is both credible and slightly unsatisfying. Clues aren’t so much parcelled out as dumped on the floor in a series of rapid-fire flashbacks. According to Bezançon, the writers regularly sent the script to friends, during the drafting stage, to see if anybody could guess the ending. “If one person said yes, it meant we didn’t do it right,” he says. Unwinding a mystery, the filmmaker admits, is more difficult than it looks. “It’s not obvious. You have to hint a little bit but not too much.” What he’s come up with is a case that’s only solved when Rouche overcomes his own solipsism and looks outward. The answer, it turns out, was hiding in plain sight all along.

Harry Windsor

Harry Windsor is a Sydney-based writer.

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