You could almost convince yourself that this is a good film. With its convoluted thriller stratagems, the film—directed by Claude Lelouch—proudly displays its cleverness, but I kept wondering when this cleverness would take flight into something truly imaginative and unique. Sadly, when you start to poke at the cracks in this film, it reveals that its only secret is that it has no secrets to give up. Lelouch’s approach to the complexities of his plot is stubbornly literal, revealing only his lack of imagination.
The story is too complicated to summarize—you either tell it all or tell nothing. At best, I can only describe the various balls the film juggles: Judith, the famous writer whose novels are ghost written; a mystery man who may be either Judith’s ghost writer, an academic who has abandoned his job and family, or an escaped pedophile/serial killer called “the magician”; and finally Huguette, a Parisian hair dresser who is abandoned by her fiance at a gas station after an argument and gets picked up by the mystery man as a result.
The problem lies in that mystery man. There’s something very disappointing in watching a director construct such an elaborate plot just for the purposes of playing a shell game with the audience. Someone with more patience than I could perhaps argue that Lelouch is showing how reality bleeds into fiction and vice versa, but I think that’s giving him more credit than he deserves. All that matters in this film is the cold machine of the plot, and the result is rather unsurprisingly a lifeless, mechanical film.
The only recognizable human emotion in the film is the vanity of the director; reduced to the role of pawns, the characters are in no position to make demands upon the audience. When the wife of the missing academic confesses that she can’t stop thinking about the detective handling her husband’s case, the audience’s response is to laugh because these characters are little more than jokes. The woman’s loneliness, her grief, her love—none of it is real, none of it matters, just as all the love and hate experienced by the other characters is of no consequence as well. Everything in the film is mere grist for the gears of the plot-machine.
And when the cold machine that seemed at first so impressive finally begins to break down with ridiculous, desperate third-act revelations, that doesn’t leave you with much, does it? All that remains once the machine breaks is a lump of useless metal—and it’s ready for scrap before the credits even finish rolling.