Tuesday, March 01, 2016

French Rendezvous ’16: The Great Game

It is a real mystery how French publishers stay in business, considering the ugly covers they insist on designing for books. Pierre Blum’s latest title is as drab as anything else on the shelves, but what’s inside is incendiary. Technically, it was a ghost-writing job, but all of France’s insiders seem to know it was his work. That most definitely has dangerous implications for the gloomy former radical in Nicolas Pariser’s The Great Game (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Rendezvous with French Cinema.

Blum had one critically acclaimed novel before turning into a loser. He churned out a few articles here and there before completely packing it in. However, he once had close ties to a number a leftist radicals, which is why the sly old power broker Joseph Paskin arranges to “accidentally” meet him one night. To discredit the new, overly-ambitious Interior Minister, Paskin wants Blum to write a revolutionary manifesto to be released under the name of a notorious radical who was deported twenty years ago. He knows Blum is just the disillusioned leftist to channel his old comrade’ voice.

Frankly, Blum was never much of a believer. His activism was always more of a social thing and he has become distinctly anti-social. Unfortunately, once the ghost-written volume releases, Paskin’s rivals react with swift severity. Thugs attack Blum at his ex-wife’s gallery and Paskin’s right-hand man is murdered in a hit-and-run. With his shadowy patron in hiding, Blum takes refuge at the very hippy-dippy commune he knows is due to be raided as part of the Minister’s show of force against extremists.

The Great Game completely represents French political preconceptions that consider the right to be ruthlessly Machiavellian and the left to be infantile fools, which is totally ridiculous, right? In any event, Pariser has at them both. Essentially, the events that unfold are part of a covert civil war within the French center-right, but there is no question Paskin the conservative fixer gone off-the-reservation is the most fun to spend time with.

It is all due to the wonderfully sinister élan of the great André Dussollier, who looks like he is having a ball as the manipulative Paskin. When he is on-screen, the film hums and zings. When Melvil Poupaud is brooding on his own as the depressive Blum, not so much. It is even more awkward when he starts putting the moves on Laura Haydon, the considerably younger anarchist vouching for him at the commune. She is rather blandly played by Clémence Poésy, who co-starred in the Harry Potter franchise, but is much more likely to be recognized for her appearance in the Greek experimental short, The Capsule.

One of the delicious ironies of The Great Game is that it is the ethical ambiguous Paskin who gets Blum to re-engage with life. Dussollier certainly is a persuasive presence in the film, that’s for sure. Watching him scheme is delightfully entertaining. Recommended for his charm and Pariser’s aptly convoluted plot twists, The Great Game screens this Friday (3/4) and Saturday (3/5) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s Rendezvous with French Cinema.