May 28, 2009

Mark Of An Angel [12A]

Dir: Safy Nebou
If there’s one thing in cinema that the French seem to be doing better than anyone else it’s the slow burning thriller. This one comes from the producer, and features one of the stars of, the masterful Page Turner. It’s not as good as that wonderful film, but Mark Of An Angel is still a rewarding experience.

Seven years ago Elsa Valentin’s (Catherine Frot) baby daughter was killed in a fire at the hospital where Elsa gave birth. Picking her 9 year old son up from a party Elsa sees a young girl of about seven who she comes to believe is her daughter, to the point of lying herself into the lives of young Lola’s family, and finally confronting Lola’s mother Claire (Sandrine Bonnaire) with her belief that Lola is her daughter.

I’m often wary when a film presents itself as a showcase for one or two performances, because that quite often means that actors have been given license to ham it up in pursuit of awards. Mark Of An Angel isn’t quite a two hander, but the only entirely developed characters are Elsa and Claire, and they are the only people we spend a really significant amount of time with. It would have been easy, in both of those roles, to fly off the handle and allow the film to become a contest between actresses to see who could chew the most scenery. Fortunately both Frot and Bonnaire resist this temptation.

Frot is, apparently, best known as a comedienne in France, which amazes me, because in both this and The Page Turner she seems so completely assured in a dramatic setting. Here’s she’s icy cold, giving a completely - and unnervingly - realistic feeling performance as a woman we fear is losing grip of her sanity. Even at her most frightening moments though Frot manages to keep our sympathies with Elsa, largely because the quietness and understatement of her performance gives it a real melancholy where most films, and most actresses, might have opted just to make Elsa mad and bad Frot makes her sad, which is far more effective.

Sandrine Bonnaire has the less showy and more passive role, much of her work in the middle part of the film is simply to look concerned. However Bonnaire is a fine, subtle, actress and she brings all her skill to bear here, creating a three dimensional woman who you absolutely believe in. These aren’t the kind of performances that often get noticed, but it’s precisely that smallness and subtlety that makes them, and the film as a whole, work.

If there’s a major problem with Mark Of An Angel it’s that I arrived at the ending a good quarter of an hour before the movie did, one key moment tipping me off to what the solution was finally going to be, still, getting there is a tense and interesting journey. Safy Nebbou is never in a hurry, he allows the film to move at a slow pace, but by keeping the tension up he ensures you're never bored. Nebbou's clinical and composed direction makes the occasional directorial flourish (such as a great scene in a swimming pool, and another at a ballet recital) all the more effective and memorable. Another especially strong touch is the ending, which Nebbou simply allows to hang, closing on an image that can be taken in a variety of ways, and will play on your mind afterwards.

The slow pace of Mark Of An Angel makes it, like other French thrillers of its ilk, something that isn’t for all audiences, but if you’ve a bit of patience and don’t mind your thrillers more cerebral than visceral then this is one to hunt down.

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