Hot on the heels of Tell No One (2006) comes another quality French thriller ready to give Hollywood’s brand of suspense a run for its money.
Like Tell No One, Eric Barbier’s Le Serpent is adapted from an English-language novel (Plender by Ted Lewis); also like Tell No One, it is the story of an ordinary middle-aged man whose life is torn apart when a ghost re-emerges from his past. Otherwise, however, this tale of old schoolmates unhappily reunited is a tension-filled revenger occupying the psycho-thriller territory somewhere between Dominik Moll’s Harry, He’s Here to Help (2000) and Park Chan-Wook’s Oldboy (2003).
Commercial photographer Vincent (Yvan Attal) is going through a difficult divorce and has just reached the delicate negotiations for custody of his children when old classmate Joseph Plender (Clovis Cornillac) decides to look him up. An ex-soldier, ex-cop and ruthless blackmailer with an unhealthy devotion to his recently deceased mother, Plender is out to settle some very old scores, and Vincent will soon find himself accused of rape, framed for murder, and fighting to keep his family not just together but alive.
“He’s a vampire.” This is how Plender is characterised by one of his victims, and it is true that there is something of the night about a man who lurks in the shadows and spends much of his free time in the family crypt with his alarmingly well-preserved mother. Yet far from having supernatural powers, this sociopathic killer gets his way merely through chilling calculation, cunning improvisation and unrestrained brutality.
Pitted against so formidable a foe, Vincent does everything in his power (and, importantly, everything you can imagine yourself doing in similar circumstances) to wriggle free from an increasingly compromised position, but it is clear from early on that Plender has him right by the balls, outwitting and outmanoeuvring his every move. Yvan Attal plays Vincent as Mr Average – not particularly likable, except when compared to Clovis Cornillac’s positively terrifying Plender, played with such cold aggression that even the more redeeming aspects of his character (a traumatic childhood experience, his love for his mother) are unlikely to attract viewers’ sympathies.
Though his cat-and-mouse pursuit of Vincent shifts into ever-higher gear as the story continues, the screenplay (co-written by Barbier and Tran-Minh Nam) has been put together with such watertight precision that, despite an escalation of wild twists and turns, there are no obvious holes to be found in the plot either during the film or indeed after it has run its course. You will be thrilled all the way through Le Serpent, and once the final credits roll, you will be awed by the muscular solidity of its construction.
Add to this some queasy aerial cinematography, a soundtrack (by Renaud Barbier) that only amplifies the film’s creepy inner workings, and some wonderfully baroque sets, and you have a serpent with a terrific bite even if, once it has been beheaded, all that remains is a tail with a noticeable taper, as the avoidably sentimental coda kicks in.