The theft of a best-selling author’s unpublished manuscript sets off this glossy French whodunnit, a thriller with a nightmarish vision of freelance hotdesking that could easily have been a black comedy.
The suspects are the book’s translators, holed up in what amounts to a luxurious bunker beneath a French chateau, complete with a five-star chef, swimming pool and bowling alley.
They’ve signed on to live and work in this lavish lockdown for a greedy publisher named Eric (Lambert Wilson), who stands to lose squillions if there’s a leak, and has consequently deployed armed guards, confiscated phones and disabled the internet.
But leak it does, and Eric stops at nothing to uncover the culprit.
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Second-time writer-director Regis Roinsard (Populaire) is clearly taking cues from Agatha Christie novels about “perfect” crimes with suspects in exotic locations.
The Breakfast Club feels like another, albeit more distant reference, as the characters gather in the collective workspace with its classroom-like rows of desks. It’s a location that implies the possibility of solidarity, but can national differences and individual self-interest be overcome?
Before the crime is revealed, the set-up unfolds with some jibing about national traits (someone remarks that Greeks don’t pay taxes, someone else jokes that you can’t tell the Spanish and Portuguese apart), and there’s a prosecco-fuelled singalong to What The World Needs Now is Love — the kind you hear in karaoke bars from Frankfurt to Beijing.
Things can only go south from here, presumably.
The stolen book is the final of a trilogy, and when its first few pages leak online with a ransom demand, Eric’s demeanour as gallant host dissolves quickly. With his impeccably tailored suits and chiselled Aryan features he begins to remind you of a movie Nazi: holding the translators captive while sending the guards to ransack their bedrooms and ordering a strip search, like some sadistic commandant.
In contrast to Christie’s Inspector Poirot — who has a philosophical commitment to the concept of justice — Eric’s basically a tyrant trying to weed out disloyal servants. And so we root against him, even before we have any idea of the who or how or why of the crime.
Roinsard’s script, co-written with Romain Compingt and Daniel Presley, becomes more ambitious as the film proceeds, moving on from the office dystopia idea, with its criticism of surveillance and control, to philosophical questions about culture, particularly the art-versus-commerce conundrum and the ethics of artistic integrity.
It’s not a smooth transition, but The Translators at times recalls the films Francois Ozon has made about troubled writers — knotty mysteries about the creative process like Swimming Pool or In the House.
In this regard, the trilogy’s mysterious and publicity-shy novelist — a kind of French, male version of Elena Ferrante — is one of Roinsard’s more interesting ideas. It leads us to a white-haired bookseller in Normandy (Patrick Bauchau), who looks upon the world from his tiny shop with jaded suspicion (this isn’t a spoiler, the film is up front about his identity early on).
The translators, of course, do not know him, and they have different ideas of what he represents.
We never get a clear feel for his books, except that they involve a doomed heroine named Rebecca, and opinion seems divided over whether they are high art or trash.
For the Greek translator (Manolis Mavromatakis), a leftist academic who’s the oldest of the group, they’re the work of a hack.
For the Russian (Olga Kurylenko), who dons a flowing white dress like the one Rebecca wears in the book, the heroine is almost a personal avatar (an obsession that recalls the ghostly influence of that other Rebecca in Alfred Hitchock’s 1940 film).
A friendship forms between her and the young English translator (Alex Lawther), a precociously talented linguist who’s equally obsessed — but with meeting the book’s writer.
Others in the group are less invested either way.
The Italian and Chinese translators see the job as a paycheck (Riccardo Scamarcio, Frederic Chau), while the Danish translator (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is more concerned with her own writing, almost resenting the need to work on anything else.
There is a lot of character to develop here, and the film struggles to put flesh on all the bones, especially as it contends with numerous surprise revelations.
It pivots to a full-blooded thriller in the rain-slicked streets and crowded metro carriages of Paris midway through, where Roinsard directs with a galloping pace and a tidy discipline.
The tonal shift is welcome, and a great distraction, even if a few rusty cop show tropes — interview rooms with one-way glass mirrors and detectives searching apartments with torchlights — lack a fresh twist.
When eventually the film tries to circle back to its key philosophical questions, it suffers from a distinct lack of subtlety.
Like the fictional trilogy of books at its centre, The Translators wants to be both populist and serious-minded, but doesn’t quite find the right balance, leaving you with a lingering feeling of untapped promise.
It has twists to rival a Christie novel and a curiosity that skims some interesting ideas, which means it’s not dull. But like many page-turners, it’s never as deep as it wants to be.
The Translators is in cinemas from September 17.