Artisan // 1999 // 102 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // June 20th, 2001
"We're so alike, Xavier. Sometimes I wonder which of us is uglier." -- Nathalie (Marianne Denicourt)
A film noir that tries hard to expose a terrible injustice, The Lost Son suffers from uninspired scripting and tired acting.
Xavier Lombard (Daniel Auteuil) is a seedy private investigator who haunts London. On the bad side, he chain smokes and blackmails his clients. On the good side, he loves children, soccer, and fish. His best friend, Carlos (Ciarán Hinds), recommends Xavier to his in-laws, the wealthy Spitz family, in order to find their missing son. But Leon's disappearance leads Xavier on an odyssey into the seedy word of child slavery. Can he survive long enough to bring the evil pornographers to justice?
The Lost Son means well. It is hard to fault a movie which generates so much righteous indignation about the sexual exploitation of children. Director Chris Menges walks the audience through the layers of the child porn industry, from the street level purchasers, to the mid-level brokers, to a "puppy farm" in the heart of Mexico, showing the appropriate level of disgust throughout. The movie masquerades as film noir, following the rules to the letter: a disillusioned hero deep in financial and karmic debt, a femme fatale (Nastassja Kinski), a double-cross or two, a little violence and sexual tension, a plot twist you can see a mile off, and even the requisite McGuffin (Leon's disappearance, which serves as a pretext to get our hero into the thick of things). The film works very hard to be sincere, to redeem its morally ambiguous hero by giving him a quest we can all empathize with: rescuing endangered children.
But beyond the instant sympathy Menges generates with images of exploited children looking at us with puppydog eyes, there is not very much to The Lost Son. Lombard comes across as somewhat of a cipher. He is not seedy enough to require all that much redemption (we see him blackmail an adulterous wife into paying him more than the husband who hired him; he has a fairly chaste relationship with a beautiful hooker). But his "psychic wound" -- a necessity for a noir hero (in this case, the death of his family) -- is provided too late in the film for us to really understand why he is so obsessed with this case. Perhaps Lombard is meant to be fairly blank so that we can empathize with his quest to destroy the corrupt Friedman (Bruce Greenwood) and his gang, but it also makes the narrative seem too mechanical, an excuse to show us how evil child porn is. Which of course, we already know.
This apparent redundancy is built into the plot. In an early, awkward moment, Lombard discovers a tape of child porn hidden in Leon's apartment (evidence from Leon's failed attempt to break up the porn ring himself). He stares at it incredulously, as if he was previously completely unaware that such things existed. This seems very odd: Lombard is portrayed as an ex-cop with plenty of knowledge of the underworld. How could he not know child pornography rings exist in major cities like London?
Such pedestrian screenwriting (by Margaret and Eric Leclere) is not helped by Menges and crew. Although cinematographer Barry Ackroyd provides the appropriate noir haze, the rest of the proceedings are fairly nondescript and by the numbers. The cast underplays to the point of lethargy. Daniel Auteuil (in his first English role) masters the dialogue reasonably well (although subtitles would really help the audience), but seems to play Lombard as if he is on the verge of a coma at times. He does get appropriately pissed off when he goes on his violent rampages against the villains, but they too seem less frightened of him than merely bored. Even the big twist at the end comes as no surprise to either the characters or the audience, except in its complete lack of narrative logic.
Since I had to save something to fill the rebuttal section, I will take a moment to berate Artisan for providing virtually no extra content for this disc. No trailer. No subtitles -- which is a big problem given how many characters sport thick accents. They do offer cast and crew information, but that is all.
The Lost Son has its heart in the right place, but it fumbles the ball by presenting an idea with great potential in a fairly lackluster package. There is not enough substance here to make the film worthy of a purchase.
Director Chris Menges is held over by this court until he can find a solid story and well developed characters upon which to prop up his righteous anger at one of the great evils of this world. Artisan is fined for an uncharacteristically weak packaging effort.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 102 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Cast And Crew Information