The meaning of life, take 2
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 9, 2012
What could we accomplish if we didn’t have to be -- or, rather, to remain -- the selves we have become? What are the costs, and the rewards, of personal reinvention? Those are the intriguing questions at the heart of “The Big Picture,” an existential French thriller about a man who leaves his former life, identity and obligations behind, not just once, but twice.
In Eric Lartigau’s film, loosely adapted from a 1997 novel by Douglas Kennedy, Paul Exben (Romain Duris) is a high-powered Parisian lawyer and father of two cute kids whose marriage to Sarah (Marina Fois) has been coming apart for a while. As the movie begins, their interactions over the breakfast table are prickly and brittle -- as painful to watch as they must be to participate in. Unbeknownst to Paul, Sarah has begun an affair with a photographer, Greg Kremer (Eric Ruf).
Paul’s discovery of this betrayal, and his disastrous confrontation with his wife’s lover, which culminates in the photographer’s accidental death, precipitates the main action. After some agony, Paul decides to assume Greg’s identity, disposing of the body, faking his own death and abandoning the life he knows -- including his wife and children -- for a remote seaside shack in Montenegro.
A frustrated amateur photographer whose youthful artistic ambitions were stifled by mounting career and family obligations, Paul takes to his new role -- and to the freedom that comes with it -- with surprising gusto. He picks up a secondhand camera and begins to shoot. Soon, Paul’s raw and poetic photographic portraits of working-class Montenegrans come to the attention of a local newspaper. The gallery world isn’t far behind.
It’s a somewhat familiar scenario, with echoes of “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” But Paul is not a nut. Despite his embrace of his new persona, he ultimately remains torn. He’s as uncomfortable with the perpetuation of his ruse as he is with the scrutiny of his newfound admirers, who include a pretty photo editor (Branka Katic).
Paul has become Greg in almost every way, except that the man with the camera will not allow himself to be photographed. In an age of Facebook and Google, it’s a little hard to believe that anyone would be so easily able to masquerade as someone else. But Duris vividly renders Paul’s struggle between the desire for self-actualization and the need to avoid detection.
That’s the surface story. It moves, with supple muscularity, toward a twisty and satisfying conclusion. But there’s also a delicate idea that lives inside the more superficial thriller. Who hasn’t fantasized about shedding his or her skin and starting over? The message of “The Big Picture” is reminiscent of what they say about the caterpillar, who thought its life was over, until it became a butterfly.
Contains obscenity, brief violence and sex. In French, Serbian, Montenegrin and English with English subtitles.