If you have seen Fatal Attraction, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, Poison Ivy, Single White Female , SwimFan, or any of the countless other films where a mysterious woman slyly insinuates herself into the trust of others before going all out to ruin them (typically in an over-the-top climax), then you may well feel from early on that you know exactly where Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner (aka La Tourneuse de Pages) is headed.
Yet it is the extent to which Dercourt both does, and does not, conform to expectations that shows his absolute mastery of this subgenre. Never before has the manipulative-woman-turns-nasty movie been elevated out of its natural B-grade home by such elegance, restraint and subtle surprise.
The determined young daughter of a small-town butcher, Mlanie Prouvost has a talent at the piano, but her chances in the entrance exam of a prestigious Conservatory are dashed when the chairwoman of the auditioning panel carelessly distracts her from her recital.
A decade or so later, Mlanie takes an internship at a law firm, and is soon recruited by the wealthy lawyer Monsieur Fouchcourt to be au pair to his young son Tristan (Antoine Martynciow). Whether by coincidence or design, Fouchcourt’s wife turns out to be Ariane (Catherine Frot), the woman who years earlier had so callously nipped Mlanie’s musical career in the bud.
Ariane is a middle-aged concert pianist, still struggling to rebuild her confidence after a hit-and-run accident. While she does not recognise who Mlanie is, she is quick to spot her talent, and asks Mlanie to become her page turner for a series of increasingly important performances. Before she realises it, Ariane has entrusted her career, her marriage, her family and her heart to a woman scorned.
Dercourt’s film opens with images of a young Mlanie practising piano intercut with her father unceremoniously butchering an animal – ensuring that the many subsequent scenes set amidst the big carving knives and chopping boards of the Fouchcourt kitchen are imbued with a near unbearable tension as we wait for the girl, now older, to exact a terrible retribution on her one-time nemesis.
Yet time and again Dercourt (himself an accomplished musician and teacher at the Strasbourg Region National Conservatory) proves adept at misdirection, and the vengeance that he has in store in this slow-burning thriller (and class satire) is far more refined than, if every bit as devastating as, the out-and-out carnage that has been prefigured from the outset. For here the business of revenge is as measured and well-tempered as a piano score, and it will turn out that Mlanie’s Bach is far worse than any bite.
Catherine Frot conveys perfectly Ariane’s mix of arrogance and insecurity, but best of all is Dborah Franois, fresh from her debut as the mother in the Dardenne brothers’ L’Enfant (2005). Described early in the film as looking ‘meticulous’, Franois’ Mlanie is all quiet self-assurance and half-smiles, in an extraordinarily contained performance whose very inscrutability engenders and embodies much of the film’s suspense.
As she plays (or appears to play) the Fouchcourts like a skilled musician, it becomes both diverting and diabolically difficult to discern from her poker face just how much of what happens (e.g. Ariane’s earlier accident, Mlanie’s employment by Fouchcourt) is down to chance, and how much forms part of Mlanie’s ‘meticulous’ plot. What remains certain in this otherwise ambiguous film is that the revenge which ensues is all the more sweet for its calculated precision and its controlled disharmony.