Based on a true story whose underlying themes prove too obvious and one-note in translation, In the Beginning creates tension not only from its saga of an unlikely con, but from the nagging sense that more urgency and surprise should be forthcoming from such an amazing tale. After robbing his fence colleague (Gérard Depardieu), two-bit swindler Paul (François Cluzet) continues roaming the northern French countryside perpetrating a profitable scam in which he poses as a construction conglomerate employee. It’s a reasonably profitable ruse that leads to unexpected, lucrative opportunities when he winds up in a small community where said conglomerate abandoned a highway construction project two years prior, in the process leaving the area in economic ruin. The arrival of Paul, now going by the alias Philippe, is immediately viewed by the locales as a sign that their asphalt-laying endeavor will resume, an assumption that Paul doesn’t immediately refute—in part because of the contractors eager to dole out cash bribes for work—and soon gets swept up in, leading to the commencement of a major enterprise all predicated on a big fat lie.
Writer-director Xavier Giannoli (The Singer) sprinkles in a few subjective-perspective compositions amid his social-realist aesthetic, but generally allows his narrative to carry the day—a shrewd decision, given the improbability of Philippe’s hoax. His directorial restraint is matched by that of Cluzet, who cannily refuses to externalize the mounting contradictions roiling around inside his con man, using silent, darkened glances and harried body language to convey his character’s self-conscious descent into figurative quicksand. Philippe undertakes the highway job as a way to make a quick buck, but soon finds himself drawn to the desperate plight of those counting on his make-believe company’s employment to survive, in particular a hotel maid (Soko), her thief boyfriend (Vincent Rottiers), and the town mayor (Emmanuelle Devos), with whom he embarks upon a romantic relationship.
In the Beginning is consistently lucid and well-performed, especially in the case of Devos, flashing both authentic elation and movie-star charisma in a brief, giddy reaction shot to a protestation of love made over the phone. And as it wends its way toward the only conclusion that could reasonably be expected from such a scenario, it makes plain its various larger concerns, from the dishonesty of capitalism and the difficulty of individual and collective reinvention to the push-pull between self-interest and altruism.
Such points are, in fact, made too plainly by Giannoli’s script, or rather, aren’t deepened sufficiently. In the Beginning’s story so explicitly and straightforwardly suggests a variety of relevant moral-social-economic issues that there’s no mystery or juice to its underlying interests; everything’s surface, in a manner at once moment-to-moment engaging and yet inevitably slight. Even when Giannoli delivers a knockout image, such as that of construction vehicles ecstatically circling Philippe to express gratitude for his efforts, a sense of repetition feels oppressive, the director following up points about his characters and their circumstances by repeating them in slightly different ways. Focusing on details of Philippe’s con, from acquiring checkbooks to avoiding bad weather, serves Giannoli better.
Yet even in its fixed concentration on these machinations, the proceedings play like Time Out-lite, a captivating real-life news article straining to be more than it is by saying something important. Better, then, that the conclusion strips away any pretense of serious drama, indulging in such a corny, overwrought confluence of all-things-come-to-a-head catastrophes (even God seems determined to foil Philippe’s noble intentions) that the film affords a peek at the wry comedy that, in defter hands, it might have been.
In the Beginning will play on March 13, 17, and 18 as part of this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series. To purchase tickets, click here.