I dug this spy thriller, a tense romance with elements reminiscent of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, while set amongst contemporary government and financial entities. Jean Dujardin is dead-serious, but still roguish and charming as a Russian spy working in Paris to get intel on a competitor, played by Tim Roth, of his politico boss/mentor. He’s charged with gathering evidence of Roth’s indiscretions so that his higher-up, who’s a father figure that got him off the streets and into his fancy suits, can box him out and take a prominent position in the Russian government. He gets the bright idea to turn one of Roth’s key financial advisors, and get her to work undercover for him and get under his dirty fingernails. Two problems. One, she’s a drop-dead sexy dame played by Cecile De France that immediately has sexual chemistry with Dujardin. Two, she’s already working for the CIA to clear her name with the American authorities so she can return to the states and take care of her ailing father. Complications ensue.
There’s a lot of financial double-talk, inter-office intrigue, and globe-trotting, but the heart of this film is the doomed love story between Dujardin and De France. Their initial meeting, locking eyes at a club (which she interprets as coincidence, but he’s tailing her) immediately sets the tone for their relationship. Before they even know just how much they have in common, due to their sneaky, duplicitous lifestyles, they have a sense of chemistry that’s undeniable. But even their first night together is a near-calamity: he cannot let his Russian companions know that he’s sleeping with their mark, and she is terrified that Roth’s intense scrutiny of her private life, and their tryst, will threaten her attempts to penetrate his inner circle. Thus begins this song-and-dance of them both pretending to be control while everything that they, on the surface, seem to be concerned with takes a back seat to their increasingly passionate romance. Luckily, they are both closely guarded figures, and manage to keep all suspicious parties at bay, at least for a while.
The film initially seems like it’s going to be a cold, clinical spy thriller along the lines of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, or something, but once Dujardin and De France hook up, the soft heart of the film reveals itself. Its about how these two wounded, trapped people are able to save each other by taking the risks necessary to continue seeing each other. There’s a scene involving a cell phone call that is almost preposterous in how big of a risk Dujardin takes just to get in contact with De France, but it fits well with the ambiguous, yet passionate nature of their romance. They do not know how crucially the other’s secrets threaten them, but they subconsciously keep their cards close to their chest, not really talking too much about themselves, and mostly keeping their conversation toward their emotions and the practicalities of their relationship. They have both been manipulated and used by higher powers, and with each other, they, perhaps for the first time, feel a sense of trust and safety, indulging feelings and longings instead of paranoias and professional concerns.
For Dujardin, it’s a great follow-up to his Oscar win for The Artist, but De France is a revelation. She’s playing a whip-smart, intense figure that is sometimes cold as ice, and other times more passionate than one could even believe possible, and she is always able to sell it like the behavior of a living, breathing human being, albeit a conflicted one. She knows enough to reveal just enough about herself to keep interested parties in the dark, and there’s a great deal of tension and drama in how this romance threatens her ability to keep her cool. Where Dujardin just seems angry and frustrated that he has to keep his love for her secret, she is in touch with her humanity enough to understand that this sort of intense longing is a blessing, regardless of context. It’s a wonderful, strong, and magnetic performance, and one that I hope leads to her getting the same sort of Stateside attention as her costar.
The film never really feels like a typical spy flick, even when it should. The interplay between Dujardin’s team is quite funny (they make fun of his cliched commands to “stay alert” and to “stay close” to a tail), and Roth’s bodyguard seems to have an interest in his well-being that goes above and beyond the call of duty. Writer/director Eric Rochant consistently humanizes what could easily be background figures, and creates a believable, moving world stage for the central love story to take place on. Even Roth’s unscrupulous creep seems like more than some Russian financial bully, with his British-educated manners and an obvious affection and professional respect for De France. Like real life in the modern world, everyone has superficial interests that they can lean on for their motivation, while the subtextual desires are swept under the rug. For example, Dujardin jumps through hoops for his boss, presumably for a cabinet position when he gets promoted, but it becomes obvious he is only going to these lengths because he owes the older man his life for giving him a chance in the government. But when his enemies try and figure it out, it is only the promotion on the table that they see.
The explanation of the Mobius strip, and how it relates to the story, is potent, and the scene that contains it is powerful, but it is almost a diversion from the actual heart of the narrative. The real ending is strong, unconventional, and heartbreaking, and borders so close to melodrama that, in lesser hands, it would derail the whole experience. But it seals the deal on what is a deeply romantic, emotional movie set among some truly cold, unforgiving environments.