La clef (The Key) is a 2007 film written and directed by Guillaume Nicloux. A film which was very well reviewed in France, but had a poor reception in America, where audiences, used to simpler fare, found it hard to follow. It is, but well worth the effort.
What is the key? In this obscure but tantalising thriller it is probably the childhood of each one of us, the events of which shape us into the adults we become, and the key to understanding how we behave. The film’s poster tells us that the children are punished for the sins of their fathers.
The plot, such as it is, sketches in a lot of unfinished detail. The main idea is the impact of the past on the present. Believe me, you won’t find the following outline of the plot what is called a spoiler. The film is set in two time periods, one 30 years before the other, during the childhood of the principal character, Eric, a 32 year old businessman (played by Guillaume Canet). His father was a drug courier in a highly organised heroin import business which used coffins and an undertaker business to transport their stuff, though of course Eric never knew this.
The opening scene of the film shows Eric’s father, for undisclosed reasons, murdering one of the drug ring leaders. He does it in a spectacular way, breaking into the man’s house at night and torching him with an oxy-acetelyne flame thrower. Must have really hated the guy. He then hijacks some heroin.
The gang retaliate in what is said to be the usual way: they kidnap Eric, still a baby. The child will die if the drug is not returned. It is, the baby is saved, its mother goes mad in the process of losing her child, and Eric’s father ends up dead. Eric becomes a highly disturbed and shut off character as a result of the experience.
Now, 30 years later, Eric is married, and his wife Audrey (Marie Gillain) wants them to have a child. Eric has second thoughts, and stalls. He thinks of all that can happen to children. He stalls so neurotically his wife is disturbed, and feels betrayed. Some of the trust has gone from their marriage. Then Eric receives a mysterious phone call, from a Mr Arp (Jean Rochefort), whom he does not know. Mr Arp wants to return Eric’s father’s ashes, which he has kept for sentimental reasons for 30 years. The man is dying of an incurable disease. His sister is mad and about to be hospitalised.
In the first coincidence of a film full of them (the past and its effects on people makes these parallels happen we suppose), the mad sister, Florence (Françoise Lebrun) turns out to be Eric’s mother. Her brother is the heroin smuggling king-pin, and the gang he heads has switched from coffins to funerary urns to move their product. We find out this later in the film.
Back to the past. When Eric’s father is fished out of a river, with his stomach full of stones sewn into place, two cops get on the case. They are a man and woman team, Michèle Varin (Josiane Balasko) and François Manéri (Thierry Lhermitte) who develop a strong affection, and eventually become partners in life as well as work (they are said to be reprising ongoing characters in other films of Nicloux). The woman, too, has lost a baby when she was young, and she is relentless in tracking down a gang that uses a method of kidnapping and killing children to achieve its ends. Forward 30 years, the male cop is dying of an incurable disease (I said the film was full of coincidences) in his case a brain tumour. He can be saved, perhaps, by a transfusion from his daughter Cécile (Vanessa Paradis), an errant hooker and drug user whom he has abandoned, but now needs. On her trail he sends a former associate Pujol (Yves Verhoeven).
Cécile has gotten wind of the urn Joseph Arp has given to Eric, informed by Arp’s pregnant secretary, and thinks it full of heroin and worth hijacking, which she and an associate do, knocking out Eric and adding to the bad impression he’s giving his wife. Oddly enough, the real heroin gang are also on the trail of this urn, which their boss, Mr Arp, gave to Eric in the first place. Eric gets lost, ends up at the gang’s headquarters, is caught and imprisoned along with Cécile, then set free when Mr Arp says it’s all a mistake. The urn just contains the ashes of Eric’s father.
There’s a totally unnecessary, but very thrilling, shoot out and the hooker Cécile gets hit. Eric commandeers a bus and gets her to hospital and saves her. In the hospital, in yet another coincidence, is Eric’s mother Florence. She rallies to some kind of sanity and gives him a small gold key.
Eric’s wife has left him, but now she’s home again. So is Eric. And there is a happy ending. The couple have a child, and Eric makes a good father. According to the film’s premise he should have made a lousy one.
The technique the film maker adopts is to put the audience in the same position as Eric, who has absolutely no idea of what is going on, and only understands at the end of the film. Audiences go kicking and struggling with this approach, and want to know what the film “means”. Believe me, it means you are on the edge of your seat for two hours trying to work out what’s going on. Negative reviewers don’t like this technique: I did.
The film is full of coincidences. But not as many as a Hitchcock film like Vertigo. And, aided by razor sharp editing, the film is more suspenseful than most suspense films. It is very well acted throughout, which adds considerably to its oppressive impact. It’s a film where style, or look, is more important than sense. But if you accept this, as most did for Diva for example in 1981, La clef could be a great film. It’s great entertainment for sure.
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