Tuesday, August 24, 2010

French Christie: Towards Zero

It is always satisfying to hear: “I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve called you all together,” those magic words that signify an Agatha Christie book or movie is getting down to business. Technically, the Colombo-like Commissaire Martin Bataille never utters that fateful phrase, but that is about the only thing missing from Towards Zero (trailer here), Pascal Thomas’s French take on Dame Agatha now available on DVD.

A diverse cast of characters has gathered at the elderly Camilla Tressilian’s stately but secluded coastal mansion, but they all brought plenty of baggage. Of course her nephew and heir Guillaume Neuville is on hand with his beautiful but difficult second wife Caroline. Complicating matters, Aunt Camilla has also invited Aude, his wronged wife #1. At least she can count on the attentions of family friend and itinerant wanderer Thomas Rondeau, who is so eager to reconnect with the ex-Madame Neuville, he fails to recognize the torch Marie-Adeline, Tressilian’s retainer-companion, faithfully carries for him.

Assembling this party in an isolated setting is bound to lead to murder, but the first victim is a relative outsider, Tressilian’s old friend, the distinguished police inspector Charles Trévoz. When asked for a career anecdote, he regales the dinner party with the tale of a precocious child murderer he encountered years ago. Though he refuses to even specify a gender, he assures everyone he would recognize him or her anywhere. In retrospect, this is probably a mistake. As Bataille investigates Trévoz’s subsequent death, he soon finds plenty more work where that came from.

Zero is quite an entertaining cozy whodunnit, appropriately filled with hothouse jealousies and long buried secrets. Unfortunately, for the sake of fairness, it rather clumsily drops an all-too-obvious clue early on. Still, it is largely faithful to the spirit of great previous Agatha Christie adaptations, down to the thumbnail pictures of the cast running across the bottom of the DVD cover. Yet, it also occasionally displays an enjoyably absurdist flourish just to remind us its French.

Perfectly rumpled, François Morel looks like an old shoe as the shrewd Bataille. In contrast, Jacques Serys is an elegant scene-stealer as the ill-fated Trévoz and Laura Smet is convincingly hot and overwrought as the second Madame Neuville. Unfortunately, Chiara Mastroianni comes across a bit flat as the wounded ex.

While not on the level of the Finney and Ustinov Hercule Poirot films, Zero is definitely superior to the recent BBC Christie adaptations airing on Masterpiece Mystery. Smart and sophisticated, Zero is definitely worth catching-up with on DVD.