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aka In the Shadow of Iris

D: Jalil Lespert / 99m

Cast: Romain Duris, Charlotte Le Bon, JaliL Lespert, Camille Cottin, Adel Bencherif, Sophie Verbeeck, Hélène Barbry, Jalis Laleg

Maxim Lopez (Duris) is a car mechanic with an ex-wife, Nina (Verbeeck) and young son, Eli (Laleg). He is way behind on his mortgage payments and his work as a mechanic doesn’t bring in enough money to allow him to clear the debt anytime soon. He keeps promising Nina he’ll deal with it, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever be able to. Antoine Doriot (Lespert) is the owner of the bank that holds Maxim’s mortgage. He has an attractive wife, Iris (Barbry), and appears to have it all. But one day, after he and his wife have had lunch together, she disappears. Later on that day, Doriot receives a telephone call. The caller is a man, and he informs Doriot that Iris has been kidnapped. Unless Doriot pays €500,000 for her release, then she’ll be killed.

Despite being warned not to, Doriot contacts the police. Capitaines Nathalie Vasseur (Cottin) and Malek Ziani (Bencherif) are assigned to the case, and immediately suspect someone who holds a grudge against the bank. A list of people who have made complaints contains Maxim’s name. Before they can get around to speaking with him, a ransom drop is arranged at a railway station. Doriot is required to board a particular train but at the last moment he remains on the platform. Vasseur and Ziani continue to work their way through the list until they reach Maxim. They ask him what he was doing the afternoon Iris disappeared but he has an alibi that’s supported by his ex-wife.

The police decide that the kidnapping should be made public. What they don’t know is that by doing so, what seems to have been a straightforward kidnapping will turn into something far more dramatic and deadly. Unknown to them, Iris has faked her own abduction with the aid of Maxim, but when news of the kidnapping is released to the media, Maxim makes a discovery that turns everything he knows upside down, and puts both his life and his continued liberty at risk, and from an entirely unexpected source. Forced to put a plan of his own into action, Maxim must stay one step ahead of his adversary, and hope that everything will work out as Iris originally planned.

Originally planned as a US production, but eventually ending up in France – naturellementIris arrives with little fanfare and no shortage of problems in the script department, which is a surprise as the screenplay is by Andrew Bovell, whose credits include Strictly Ballroom (1992), Lantana (2001), and Edge of Darkness (2010). But it’s likely that Bovell’s script lost and gained things in translation, as this is very definitely a Gallic interpretation of what is otherwise a typical neo-noir. Once the police are introduced, the movie’s well constructed and intriguing beginning soon gives way under a welter of dramatic inconsistencies and dubious narrative decisions. There’s a good movie here somewhere, but under Lespert’s guidance, it only gets to shine on occasion, and remains an inconsistent, frustrating piece throughout.

Inevitably with a movie that stands or falls on the quality of its main “twist”, Iris relies on a piece of sleight-of-hand involving Iris herself that should immediately set viewers’ alarm bells ringing (it’s also the point where more experienced viewers will be nodding to themselves wisely and saying “Ah-ha!”). But the movie continues as if no one will have noticed what’s going on and then falls promptly on its sword by introducing Vasseur and Ziani. Ultimately it’s their involvement that ruins the whole tone of the movie, as their attempt at investigating Iris’s kidnapping proves to be both foolish and inane. The French may well be an idiosyncratic race, but it’s unlikely that their police detectives reveal intimate details of their sex lives when interviewing suspects (as they do with Doriot). And you’d certainly hope that if a kidnapper got in touch by mobile phone that they’d try to track him down by tracing his number – not here, though.

There are other instances of police stupidity on display including a dawn raid on Maxim’s workshop-cum-home where they haven’t bothered to check if he’s even there in the first place, and these instances take up too much of the movie’s running time. But even away from all that, things speed up and unravel at such a pace that there’s no time to wonder how all of it is happening, and without the principal characters – let’s leave the police out of all this – knowing about it. It all narrows down to Maxim and Doriot, and what each will do to get what they want. This leaves Iris as a pawn in both their games, but a pawn who has the capacity to ruin either one of them.

On the whole, Iris has the appearance of a thriller that’s been well thought out, but only to a point. Despite some appropriately moody camera work courtesy of Pierre-Yves Bastard, and a plaintive, melancholy score by ambient duo A Winged Victory for the Sullen, Lespert’s approach to the material remains scattershot and lacking in focus. Too many scenes seem to have been included at random, or for no appreciable reason, and too many dialogue scenes serve only to reinforce what’s already happened rather than to drive the story forward. The cast are often left stranded by the demands of the script, with Duris called upon to grimace his way through Maxim’s domestic crises (which have no bearing on anything else that happens), and Lespert himself prone to playing scenes where he stares off into space as if these moments will add depth to both the character (it doesn’t) and the scene (ditto).

The movie adds another couple of twists into the mix late on, but by then it’s too late, and most viewers will have worked out where it’s all going anyway. There’s also time for a fairly gratuitous and unnecessary sex scene, and the kind of denouement that aims for a combination of psychological integrity and emotional intensity, but instead falls well short of achieving both. The movie weaves various flashbacks into the narrative in an effort to explain certain things that have happened, but even with that clarity it doesn’t help the movie feel any less muddled or ill defined. As thrillers go it’s quite mundane, and plays out with a noticeable lack of energy – which could be forgiven if Lespert had opted for a more considered approach to the material.

Rating: 5/10 – despite a number of narrative and directorial flaws that hamper the flow of the movie, Iris takes its place amongst the movies that have aimed high, and without any clear sense of how those aims should play out; determinedly Gallic in tone but unable to offer anything new, it’s a movie that plays out favourably enough, but without being too memorable.