Judge Tom Becker says c'est domage for this French thriller.
"Do you read music?"
"Yes. I used to play the piano."
Revenge and obsession seem to go hand-in-hand. In the movies, the person seeking revenge is usually obsessed with his or her quest. Such memorable characters as Ethan Edwards (The Searchers), Alex Forrest (Fatal Attraction), "Peyton Flanders" (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), and Dr. Phibes have been powered by their quest for vengeance. This French film gives us a new player in the genre: Mélanie Prouvost. Is she the Gallic heiress apparent, or just a poseur?
Facts of the Case
Pre-teen Mélanie Prouvost (Jule Richalet) is applying for admission to a music conservatory. Mélanie is a gifted pianist, and she sees her acceptance or rejection as a be-all, end-all: If she is not accepted, she will give up on music. During her presentation, one of the judges, Ariane Fouchécourt (Catherine Frot, Chaos), a concert pianist, grants an autograph to a fan. This distracts Mélanie, and she misplays her piece.
Flash forward. Mélanie is now a young adult (Déborah François, L'Enfant) interning at a law firm. By chance, she learns that the head of the firm is looking for someone to fill in for a few weeks while his son's nanny is on vacation.
By chance, the lawyer is married to the same pianist who caused Mélanie to life alteringly screw up her audition.
Quelle chance! Now, it's Mélanie's turn to insinuate herself into the pianist's life, so she will wish she'd never granted that autograph.
For some, the slights of childhood never quite go away. I once worked with a man who came in bragging one day that he had humiliated and degraded a salesman. It seems that he and the salesman had gone to elementary school together, and the salesman had bullied him when they were first graders. Forty years later, vengeance was my co-worker's.
In the case of Mélanie, the slight was not perpetrated by another child, but by an adult. Ariane's gesture was careless and inconsiderate; this was just one of the many presentations she would hear that day, not important to her. When Mélanie becomes part of Ariane's household, she impresses the older woman with her ability to read music. Mélanie becomes Ariane's page turner, a very important position. We learn that Ariane is emotionally fragile, having been in a car accident a couple of years prior, and she is having difficulty with her career (she is part of a struggling classical music trio). Mélanie becomes the center of Ariane's world. Mélanie similarly becomes friend/advisor/companion to Tristan, Ariane's son, who is about the same age Mélanie was when we saw her at the beginning of the film. Mélanie is now poised to exact her long-simmering vengeance.
Director Denis Dercourt gives us all the elements we expect in a revenge/obsession film: steely, determined avenger; victimizer turned victim; vulnerable child, whose hobbies include seeing how long he can hold his breath in the family's indoor swimming pool; a secluded estate; a pet that can be skewered or boiled; and lots of sharp objects. But what we get does not always play out as expected. Dercourt's film is of heightened menace, not operatic action. It is more insidious and subtle than the standard flick of this type. But I believe it's too subtle, and too dependent on happenstance and implausibility given the payoff.
In the first 20 minutes, we are asked to believe and accept: that entrance into the conservatory is so important to pre-teen Mélanie that she will abandon music if she fails her exam; that no one in her life has enough control of the child to guide her otherwise; that the door to the exam room is left open and unwatched so the autograph seeker can just stroll in; that Ariane, who earlier refused the autograph, would grant it during the exam (we don't even know that Ariane is a famed pianist until much later in the film); that none of the other judges would object to this; that this minor distraction would so completely unnerve the prodigiously talented child; that later, Mélanie is chosen for the internship at Ariane's husband's firm; that their nanny just happens to have a holiday planned at a time convenient for Mélanie to take over; that lawyer and pianist have no other backup and ask the lawyer's secretary if her niece can take over; that the secretary's niece is unavailable, which the secretary mentions to Mélanie. And so on. The film is filled with so many such coincidences and "lucky breaks," that Mélanie doesn't have to work very hard to exact her revenge, but it renders her character less an architect of destruction than an ill-intended opportunist.
Much of Mélanie's "revenge" relies on the actions and reactions of others, particularly Ariane, who finds herself dependent upon and attracted to her page turner; but the dependence and attraction are based on Mélanie's efficiency, youth, and occasional subtle instigation rather than manipulation and machination. Ariane never seems in peril or in danger of being destroyed, and one of the areas where it seems Mélanie can do the most harm, unnerving Ariane so that she plays badly during an important performance by the trio, just doesn't seem that urgent. The other area, Ariane's growing attraction to Mélanie, kind of comes out of nowhere and seems orchestrated by the screenplay rather than any organic, human interaction.
The only extra of note is a "Making of" featurette with director Dercourt, along with some input from actresses Frot and François. Dercourt, who is a classical musician and a music teacher at Conservatoire Nationale in Strasbourg, talks about directing the film as though he were composing and conducting a presentation of music. The featurette included some triumphal footage of the filmmaker and stars at Cannes, which I felt strained the limits of self-congratulations. The transfer looks fine, and the Dolby 5.1 Surround seems the best bet for this music-centric film. There is also a DTS 5.1 option that would not play in my two-year-old, DTS-enabled machine or in a friend's newer model.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Not every revenge/obsession drama has to have characters tossed from buildings, cuckolded, or maimed. The Page Turner is a mood piece, beautifully shot and acted, particularly by Frot as the woman whose façade has long since cracked and is now in danger of drifting away. If you approach this film as a thriller, particularly using the American model of "thriller," you'll be disappointed. On the other hand, if you like your drama less obvious and your suspense more cerebral, you may find this to be an elegant, intriguing piece of work.
Mélanie's "tragedy" just isn't that tragic. If everyone who, as a child, didn't make the team or missed some opportunity decided to exact revenge on the adults we held responsible, we'd all be nutty nannies and menacing mannies. Hopefully, though, we'd be a bit more proactive in our revenge efforts, relying less on luck and a little more on mayhem. Perhaps if I had a better appreciation of classical music, or of the French in general, I would have found more to like here.
The Page Turner is guilty of being a moody art house drama masquerading as a thriller.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
• "Making of" featurette (38 minutes)
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