Eric Lartigau’s existential thriller The Big Picture suggests, rather compellingly, that abandoning lofty pipedreams for middle-class comfort is a crime less forgivable than murder. Beset by privilege, security, and expensive tailored suits, successful lawyer and positive-minded family man Paul Exben (Romain Duris) has abandoned his long-dormant artistic aspirations in favor of the complacent bourgeois lifestyle he assumes better suits his increasingly distant wife, Sarah (Marina Fois), for whom she feels he’s compromised his true potential. Whatever spark once shone bright within Paul has apparently dimmed, and though he continues to outfit his luxurious country home with the finest modern photography equipment his salary can buy, we can see he’s never going to have the time or will to use it. But it was creative ambition, not a steady nine-to-five and a double-windsor, that drew Sarah to her sweetheart in the first place, and as Paul’s obsequious banality threatens to eclipse any remnant of drive forever, Sarah begins to gravitate away from her husband and toward the impassioned labors of another man. Paul, ever-carefree and contented, hardly notices, until he does and it breaks him: In a fit of confusion and anger, he drops in on his wife’s new lover, Greg (Eric Ruf), a failing but nevertheless authentic photographer, and stabs him in the neck with a broken wine bottle. It’s the first act of passion he’s undertaken in years.
By this point, The Big Picture seems to be headed in an entirely predictable and not particularly interesting direction. Violence punctures the ennui of the idle rich, and suddenly issues of class and privilege are sublimated into the drama of a crime, so that questioning the status quo may be readily replaced by wondering whether our hapless hero will get away with it all (c.f. Woody Allen’s Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream, and Crimes and Misdemeanors). But the rupture Paul’s crime creates in his life is matched by the rupture it creates in the film’s narrative, and where it takes both from there is genuinely surprising: Dealing with the aftermath of Greg’s death with economy and grace, the film breaks cleanly away from the monotony of its prior routine, shuttling Paul briskly away to a remote Serbian village where he intends to live out his fugitive days in solitude—and fear of eventual reprisal. Much like in Antonioni’s The Passenger (which The Big Picture often resembles in tone, if not quite in style), Paul exploits the murder of a man with a life unlike his own as an opportunity to surreptitiously become him, faking his own death and adopting Greg’s identity as his own.
While the film settles into a new and unexpected rhythm in the hills of the former Yugoslavia, where Paul begins to rediscover his love of and talent for the art of photography, The Big Picture brushes tantalizingly close to the profound. It suggests complicated ideas about what it means to be a fully realized artist and what it’s worth sacrificing in order become one: the notion that Paul needed to destroy himself and his superior rival in order to realize his dreams, and that sense that doing so was morally justifiable given the results, has a rich Lacanian dimension on which Zizek could write a dissertation. But the film stops short of wholly embracing this new rhythm, eventually shifting gears once more and reverting to the conventions, more or less, of an ordinary thriller. Abandoning that Antonioni-like drift, whether out fear for its audience’s attention span or a presumed need for moralizing last-act redemption, is a frustratingly weak-willed cop-out, and it ultimately prevents The Big Picture from making something out of the interesting ideas it brings into play. It’s as though the film suffers the same fate to which its protagonist appears bound at the beginning of the story: Selling out for the security of convention and complacency, The Big Picture abandons its ambitions and its dreams. And surely being a rote, mediocre thriller is a fate worse than failure.