Best Left Unsolved

Tell No One

tell-no-one-3.jpgWhile I still don’t really understand the Twitter phenomenon, I’ve loved using the 140-character limit for extreme forced concision. The aim is always to pack these ridiculously short reviews with enough meaning that I don’t feel guilty about never writing more about a particular movie or television show. I would never say that 140 characters is sufficient to discuss much of anything — let alone a feature film — but it’s a great if arbitrary writing exercise: How much can you say within Twitter’s confines?

For the most part, I’ve been happy with the results. But with Tell No One, I feel that I need to explain myself.

I tweeted:

“Teasing with odd, existential potential, the tight French thriller ‘Tell No One’ sadly picks a worn, logical path. A lovely ending, though.”

The film is expertly assembled: It’s suspenseful, it’s highly engaging, it makes sense, it plays mostly fairly, and it has a great chase that gives Frogger a marginally funny (and certainly offensive) double meaning. tell-no-one-1.jpgWriter/director Guillaume Canet (adapting Harlan Coben’s 2001 novel) sucks the audience in with the conceit, and there’s significant satisfaction in figuring out how the puzzle pieces fit together.

All that said, what I hoped for from Tell No One is fundamentally different from what it is. And although critics are often admonished to review the thing that was made rather than the thing that could have been made, there’s value in looking at prospect in addition to reality.

A husband and wife are cavorting in a lake when she leaves to let the dog out. (That’s not a euphemism, by the way.) The husband hears his wife scream, swims back to the dock, and is attacked. The movie jumps forward eight years, and through mostly graceful exposition we learn that wife Margot was abducted, tortured, and murdered by a serial killer, although the police suspected that husband Alexandre might have offed her for the life-insurance money.

But when Alexandre gets an e-mail message that could have only come from his wife — with a surveillance-camera video that appears to show her alive and well — he begins to ask questions. tell-no-one-2.jpgAnd the discovery of two male corpses near the lake gets the police interested in the case again.

The tantalizing element here is the obvious contradiction: If Margot is still alive, then she can’t be dead; but her body was found and positively identified, so she can’t be alive. Normally in these scenarios, the body was never found; not here. Typically, the spouse harbors some skepticism of the official story; not here.

I was filled with genuine excitement, offset by a hint of dread. There was the possibility here of something dreamy and satisfyingly elusive and strange — like David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. Perhaps a study of growing obsession and madness, as in The Conversation. Maybe, like Zodiac, it leads to dead ends without feeling empty or pointless. (Those are three movies I adore.) It could also be maddeningly unresolvable and unresolved — like Michael Haneke’s Caché or Lynch’s Lost Highway. (Those are two movies that frustrate me.) It seemed to me that Tell No One had an existential concern, a larger agenda than being a mystery/thriller; Canet leaves the viewer open to possibilities beyond reason and a clean resolution.

Put a different way, I bought into the contradiction rather than the certainty that eventually there would be no contradiction. I thought it possible that Margot was both dead and alive. I wanted Margot to be both dead and alive.

But as the narrative unfolds and connections are made clear — culminating in a lengthy, unfortunately lazy expository speech — the reality is far less interesting, and I was revealed as a dupe. Tell No One’s agenda is finally no larger than being a very good mystery/thriller, and it merely fulfills that aim. The revealed mix of wealth, corruption, family secrets, and a little bit of deviant sex is awfully familiar — a riff on Chinatown without the transcendence.

Yet Canet, for more than half the running time, keeps the movie’s nature obscured. His narrative strategy is a blend of confusion, questionable cinematic deception, and empathy. The audience works so hard at keeping up with people, events, and timelines that it’s easy to overlook the in-plain-sight explanation. The sleight-of-hand, if I’m remembering it correctly, is a bit of a cheat — a visual lie used to support a verbal lie.

But the movie’s secret weapon is the empathy it creates in the audience with Alexandre. We become so invested in him as a doctor, as a decent person, and as a baffled, grieving husband that we begin to acquire his blind spots. When the movie begins to suggest a seedy past for the pure Margot, we share his disbelief. And because he trusts certain people, we trust them, too, and we perhaps miss things.

The result, curiously, is that we find the impossible credible, because he seems to. Alexandre doesn’t doubt that Margot is dead, but he sees her on his computer screen. His investigation isn’t driven by a theory, so he allows for anything that conforms to his understanding of his wife, regardless of whether it conforms to common sense or the laws of the world. Our standard-issue suspension of disbelief grows into a suspension of logic.

This state of mind isn’t sustained and can’t be sustained in this particular story. But while it lasts, it’s pretty special.

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