Recent years have seen a welcome return of the stylish, intelligent French genre film. Last a visitor to our shores in the early ‘00s with titles such as Crimson Rivers and Brotherhood of the Wolf, the stylish French thriller now assumes the form of films like Fred Cavaye’s Point Blank, Guillaume Canet’s Tell No One and Eric Lartigau’s The Big Picture.
One of the major players in this quiet renaissance is Abdel Raouf Dafri, the writer responsible for both Jean-Francois Richet’s epic Mesrine series and Jacques Audiard’s Cannes-winning A Prophet. Based on a novel that is in turn based upon a series of real events, Dafri’s latest project The Informant finds him working with Julien Leclerq, arguable one of the most visually arresting directors to come out of France in the last decade. On paper, The Informant has everything that you could possibly want from a smart French thriller: Talented direction, serious acting, award-winning writing and genuine political scandal. However, despite all the creative resources brought to bear on the project, The Informant somehow manages to be something of a disappointment.
Marc Duval (Gilles Lelouche) is a bit of a scumbag. Up to his eyes in debt and unable to keep his shipping company afloat, he fled the French mainland for Gibraltar with a suitcase full of the bank’s money. Now that the cash has dried up and his bar only provides a basic living, Duval returns to the bank for more cash only for them to laugh in his face. Desperate for a better lifestyle regardless of the risks, Duval is only too happy to turn stool pigeon when approached by Redjani Belimane (Tahar Rahim), an ambitious and unprincipled agent of French customs who really has no business on Gibraltar.
Eager for the money associated with informing on his clients, Duval begins to gather evidence only to find that French customs are far more eager to make big promises than they are to provide big cheques. Once caught running an illegal operation on British soil, the French turn Duval over to HMRC who turn out to be even less principled than their Gallic colleagues. Trapped between a bunch of angry smugglers, two manipulative customs services and a terrorist organisation attempting to fund itself by selling drugs, Duval is forced to make and break alliances just to keep himself out of jail and his family out of a shallow grave.
This plot synopsis makes the film sound significantly more interesting than it actually is. The principle problem is one of emphasis: Had Leclerq rather than allowing the needs of his story to dictate mood and pacing, Leclerq takes his cues from the human drama meaning that a film all about international smuggling and corrupt official seems quiet and plodding rather than tense and dynamic. Leclerq lavishes time and attention on his actors who explore their characters to the full only to realise that there’s not really enough human drama in the script to support nearly two hours of film. Perfectly pitched for a thriller but ludicrously under-written for a drama, the Duval character begins the film as a self-destructively greedy man and is never allowed to progress. The film’s final act finds Duval torn between remaining loyal to an honourable drug dealer (Riccardo Scamarcio) and turning him into the dishonourable police but while Leclerq was clearly hoping this relationship might turn into something reminiscent of Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco, the characters are simply not strong enough to support the focus that the film places upon them.
The problem is that the film’s female characters are something of a missing link. For example, had the character of Duval’s wife been a better-rounded character then his decision to begin snitching for French customs might have contained some real human drama. However, because Duval’s wife is written as little more than a worried face on a piece of cardboard, her presence in the film adds absolutely nothing to Duval’s character. Similarly, had Duval’s relationship with his sister been explored in a bit more depth then her decision to take up with a drug lord would have presented Duval with a real emotional problem. As it is, Duval’s sister is nothing more than an attractive woman with a tendency to sleep with the wrong men meaning that her decision to shack up with a drug lord is both predictable and dramatically uninteresting, which is a real shame as the woman playing Duval’s sister (Melanie Bernier) actually does a very good job of portraying an incredibly fragile woman who has decided to try and make a positive choice for once in her life.
Slack where it should have been taut and slow where it should have been fast, The Informant is an excellent example of what can happen when directors try to make a script do something that it was not designed to do. Leclerq’s misreading of the script is doubly frustrating, as the film looks absolutely amazing. Indeed, despite being set under the blue skies and by the blue seas of Gibraltar, The Informant is a dark and claustrophobic little film that travels across the globe without ever bothering to open a window. The result is a film that perfectly captures Duval’s suffocating mental state as well as the sense that smuggling is a global demi-monde that functions just the same in Montreal as it does in Southern Spain. Had the direction been a little bit tighter then The Informant could easily have been a stylish espionage thriller. Unfortunately, the decision to focus on the film’s under-written characters rather than its elegantly-constructed story means that we have a film that is neither thrilling enough to be a thriller nor dramatic enough to be a drama.