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Friday, Dec. 21, 2007

'L'heure zero'

To the point of no return


French filmmaker Pascal Thomas has a thing about Agatha Christie. "L'heure zero (Toward Zero)" is his second adaptation of a mystery by the "Queen of Crime" following "Mon petit doigt ma dit . . . (By the Pricking of My Thumbs . . .)," and he re-creates the Christie microcosm, as before, with the earnest dedication of an enthused fan.

L'heure zero Rating: (4 out of 5)
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L'heure zero
Laura Smet, Chiara Mastroaianni and Melvin Poupaud in "L'heure zero (Toward Zero)" © LES FILMS FRANCAIS-TOUT DROIT RESERVES

Director: Pascal Thomas
Running time: 108 minutes
Language: French
Now playing (Dec. 21, 2007)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

The setting is gorgeous, the cast stellar — classic French actress Danielle Darrieux and Catherine Deneuve's daughter Chiara Mastroianni in the same frame! — and the nitty-gritty side of homicide is carefully filtered, leaving the audience free to savor the full flavor of Christie's world: elegant and bubbly with an aftertaste of brutishness.

Though the English author sometimes wrote of street-level goings-on, her novels deal mostly with the privileged and wealthy. And if her characters happened to be a less well-off than they had hoped to be, there was always some rich relation hovering nearby with a convenient will and "Murder Victim" stamped on their forehead.

In this sense, "L'heure zero (released in Japan as 'Zero Jikan no Nazo')" is classic Christie: a handsome, playboy tennis-star invites his wife and ex-wife for a summer holiday in a villa presided over by his rich old auntie and her personal secretary. Two other men connected to the family, Fred and Thomas, both of whom have gambling debts and penchants for sports cars they can't afford, also join.

The setting has been changed — from 1944 England to present-day Brittany — as have the characters' names, and the sharp police inspector of the original novel appears here rumpled and unshaven. But the champagne still flows freely and the decor and jewelry are appropriately gaudy. And the clothes? They are literally to die for. Think "The Devil Wears Prada" with lavish blood stains on the Dior dress.

France's resident sensitive-stud extraordinaire Melvil Poupaud plays Guillaume Neuville, a long-limbed tennis pro blessed with such charm that he's able to entice his ex-wife Aude (Chiara Mastroianni) to come and stay under the same roof with his current one, the young bombshell Caroline (Laura Smet).

Aude is a well-bred beauty who never raises her voice in public. Caroline is so incensed about this enforced menage a trois that she throws a tantrum and straps Guillaume with duct tape to a chair on which she has written "Je t'aime" in red letters.

Once at the villa, Aunt Camille (Danielle Darrieux) scolds her nephew about his ill-advised scheme to bring the two women in his life into her house. Heedless, Guillaume romances Aude all over again, while trying to keep Caroline's temper under control — a feat that proves nearly impossible, even for a born seducer such as himself. Caroline often bursts into rooms where he and Aude are innocently reading magazines, or screams her head off at the sight of the pair going for a stroll on the beach.

If you weren't already familiar with Laura Smet, her turn as Caroline will embed her name on your consciousness. Her presence is so vivid, her emotions so intense, that the screen feels like it might burst into fireworks every time she walks into the frame. Mastroianni as Aude is a neat contrast; her demure reticence may or may not be masking a cold, calculating nature.

"Toward Zero" is considered one of Christie's master achievements. The story is structured so that the murder takes place at the end, rather than the beginning of the story, with the events, character studies and conversations spiraling "toward zero" — the inevitable, preordained moment of murder.

Typical of Christie, the central menage a trois repeats itself in other new and interesting combinations; while Guillaume professes to Aude that she is "the only wife" he has ever wanted, she gets cozy with childhood sweetheart Thomas (Clement Thomas), who is also staying at the villa. Meanwhile, Caroline flirts with Guillaume's buddy Fred (Xavier Thiam), who seems to have eye on Aunt Camille's attractive secretary Marie-Adeline (Alessandra Martines), who, in turn, looks longingly at Guillaume over the dinner table.

In Agatha Christie's world, the marriage bond was often deployed as a launchpad for dark, hideous crimes, and infidelity more or less taken for granted. Christie herself was married twice and, in each case, plagued by her husbands' affairs. The Queen of Crime reputedly settled scores by writing about betrayal and death and then coating it with the innocuous veneer of "high-tea" culture.

As far as detective stories go, "Toward Zero" may disappoint fans of straightforward noir. But as a cynical observation piece on relationships and greed, it's maddeningly spot-on. As Guillaume so suavely points out: "Darling, it's an acquired taste."



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