Nobody plays "I Spy" better than France's filmmakers, who seem to have contracted a vivid, but not virulent, case of paranoia. "Birgitt Haas Must Be Killed," a cerebral suspense thriller, is the latest example of that nation's knack for meticulous and enthralling spook noir.
In many ways, "Birgitt Haas" is the tragic antonym of the favorite French spy comedy, "The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe." In both films, for instance, secret agents finger an innocent schlub to play the patsy, all the while shifting their feet to fight off the guilties for putting everyman into danger.
This plot also calls for duplicity within the French security service, which has agreed to help the German agency bump off a nymphomaniacal terrorist named Brigitt Haas. Philippe Noiret stars as the spy chief who's tricked into picking the wrong fall guy for a scheme to kill Haas. Jean Rochefort is a heart-breaker as the pitiful, unemployed patsy who's just been left by his wife.
Psychological testing and person-to- person contact between Rochefort and Noiret prove he's perfect bait for Haas' death trap -- a crime of passion in a Munich hotel. A few days later, the delighted Rochefort is tucked into the beautiful blonde terrorist's bed -- bugged by undercover operatives next door.
Lisa Kreuzer is curiously low-key as the soft-spoken, sentimental guerilla who quotes poetry and whispers words of love. But her lack of intensity fits well in this subdued film. She's a burned-out radical waiting to die. But Rochefort knows only that he's never been happier in his life.
Like Rochefort, the audience doesn't learn what Haas has done until three-quarters of the way through the film. We've backed into the motives. It's to director Laurent Heynemann's credit that we make our way through the intricate plot without getting lost, especially while reading subtitles.
In the end, "Birgitt Haas" is neither anti- terrorist nor counter-intelligence. It's soft on issues and heavy on personal morality.