Serge Le Peron
Directed and written by Serge Le Peron (L’Affaire Marcorelle and Sésame Ouvre Toi) and starring Charles Berling and Simon Abkarian, this subtitled French 60s political thriller is based around historical fact and educated guesswork. Unfortunately, unless you're familiar with the events, the only thing this plodding drama will have you eagerly anticipating is its end.
The film opens a la Sunset Boulevard. Narrator Georges Figon (Berling) lies dead in his apartment with a bullet in his skull. The audience is then taken back in time to the beginning of the story, where ex-con Figon has managed to get hired as producer for a documentary on decolonisation using his underworld connections.
The historical advisor is to be Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka (Abkarian). However, all is not as it seems. The project is a trap to lure Ben Barka to France. We see Figon's meetings with the various other figures up to the point where Ben Barka is ushered into a taxi in Paris only to vanish forever. When the last men seen with him are identified as French secret service agents it begins to fall apart. Figon's associates distance themselves, and we see the desperate measures he uses to try and save himself from the inevitable conclusion.
Berling is fantastic as Figon, perfectly recreating the attractive, charming yet disturbing character so alluring to Parisian intellectuals, whilst also showing his ambivalence and total lack of scruples. Yet the performance is not designed to inspire sympathy as, even when he faces the consequences of his actions, the man evidently felt none for himself. Abkarian gives a creditable performance as Ben Barka, although it's a strangely impassive portrayal of someone who must have been quite forceful and engaging.
The remaining cast is equally good. Josiane Balasko plays writer Marguerite Duras, a well-known figure in French literary circles, with perfect poise and aplomb, whilst director Georges Franju is portrayed in his raving eccentricity by Jean-Pierre Léaud. They bring these larger than life characters to the screen perfectly, and the reactions when they realise they've been duped by Figon are filled with tension and emotion and are brilliantly handled. Of the remaining cast, Fabienne Babe's portrayal of Figon's long-suffering girlfriend Anne-Marie Coffinet really stands out. The torment she goes through while realising the truth, and suspecting the inevitable outcome, while loving Figon too much to desert him is heart-rending.
The problem is that the viewer often ends up not entirely sure of who they are looking at. The enormous number of people involved means characters appear and disappear before you have a chance to discern who they are. The film is also divided into sections, dealing with the lead up to the disappearance, the aftermath, and then the obligatory 'what if?' scenario, meaning you move backwards and forwards through time leaving you slightly disoriented. Finally, unless you're familiar with this period of French and Moroccan history you'll be utterly baffled by the essential aspects of the politics that are so important to understanding why Ben Barka's disappearance was such a loss.
It's hard to determine where fact ends and where fiction starts in this genre, and even more difficult when much of the information comes from a self-serving fabulist like Figon, but the writers have done the best they can. There is obviously much more to the story than Le Peron had time for, and much that needed more explanation, but even at 101 minutes it still drags appallingly in places. Whilst the story is fascinating, its structure leaves it floundering and the film is only saved by the undeniable quality of the cast. One for the hardcore only.