Not even a fine performance from François Cluzet as a reformed alcoholic who is haplessly drawn into a web of political intrigue can rescue Thomas Kruithof’s first full-length feature. Billed as a thriller, La Mechanique de l’Ombre gets off to a promising start as Duval (Cluzet) loses his job and marriage to executive burn out and is forced to accept work from the mysterious Clément (Denis Podalydès) whose list of ‘do’s and don’ts’ for the position is enough to raise anyone’s suspicions. But Duval is a broken man and grateful for the well-paid undemanding task of transcribing telephone conversations for his new boss. So far, so good, but from here the plot flat-lines and Duval’s slow-witted response to the events unfolding before his eyes is both dull and frustrating. Add in a cast of secondary characters, such as a young female alcoholic (Alba Rohrwacher) who may or may not be a love interest, and a police chief Labarthe (Sami Bouajila) who redefines the meaning of the word stoic and it all feels outmoded and uninspired. Faithful to the shadows of the title, the film does have some outstanding monochrome scenes and the whole retro feel works well with Cluzet’s downtrodden Duval, but there is a definite lack of the cut and thrust associated with a top-drawer thriller.
Duval’s new job after years of unemployment sees him sitting day-after-day in a sparsely furnished apartment with a desk, an electric typewriter, a tape recorder and headphones. All he needs to do is faithfully transcribe a series of conversations provided on cassette by Clément each morning. Sworn to secrecy, Duval dutifully taps away at his typewriter for a full nine hours, until he hears a telephone conversation which raises concerns about the legality of his new position. But quitting is not an option and he finds himself reluctantly dragged into a murder investigation.
Kruithof co-wrote the script with Yann Gozlan the director of the excellent 2015 thriller A Perfect Man starring Pierre Niney so the lack of tension and pace here is surprising. The political subterfuge involving the election of a far-right candidate to the presidency has a touch of Zeitgeist given France’s upcoming elections, but it feels forced and unconvincing. And the ending is rushed and a huge anti-climax in a film which is crying out for a sting in the tale. Credit due to Cluzet whose low- key Duval is the highlight of an otherwise pedestrian directorial debut.