For his eagerly awaited follow-up to Le Prénom (What’s in a Name), Matthieu Delaporte completely changes tack by directing an intriguing, dark thriller with the versatile Matthieu Kassovitz in the lead role. Un Illustre Inconnu raises a number of questions about identity and isolation in a tense, well-paced film, but avoids drowning under these weighty issues with a sly streak of black humour. Kassovitz, who was last seen as the idealist father in Cedric Kahn’s Vie Sauvage, combines a fair measure of creepiness with an endearing vulnerability in his portrayal of the schizophrenic protagonist Sébastien Nicolas.
Sébastien is a quiet unassuming individual who only has one passion in life – to imitate the lives of people he meets. And imitate in the full sense of the word. He works hard to copy physically and verbally his chosen victims going as far as to break into their homes and assuming their identity when they are away. A harmless enough occupation until he meets Henri de Montalte, (Kassovitz in a dual role) a famous musician, with whom he is both fascinated and repelled. By taking on his identity, Sébastien becomes involved in Montalte’s fraught relationship with an ex-lover and her son but soon realises this is one fantasy life he is reluctant to give up.
Delaporte’s attention to detail so evident in Le Prénom is again displayed in Un Illustre Inconnu. The former film revolved around rapid fire dialogue and excellent timing while the latter is a study in style. The director has worked hard to create the stifling, suffocating essence of Sébastien’s life. His house is sparse, monochrome, sterile. And Montalte’s opulent, gloomy, unwelcoming Parisian apartment is equally unappealing. Kassovitz’s Sébastien is almost monosyllabic, yet he manages to convey a wide range of emotions in his creation of a sympathetic anti-hero who ultimately is only looking to escape his own mundane, empty life.
Kassovitz, long the bad boy of French cinema, seems to have taken a step back from his former self and based on the evidence of his last two films has turned into a fine actor. Un Illustre Inconnu is not without fault. There are some plot discrepancies which are hard to ignore and the film takes its time getting around to the final twist. But it’s a bold film which leaves the audience wondering what Delaporte will turn his hand to next.