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A cold served dish
A UK regiion 2 DVD review of THEPAGE TURNER / LA TOURNEUSE DE PAGES by Slarek
 

As someone who likes to think he is not influenced by any form of advertising, I nonetheless cannot help but look back with surprise at the first poster I saw for musician turned filmmaker Denis Dercourt's The Page Turner [La Tourneuse de pages]. Now I'm not talking about the real poster here, but the ones Artificial Eye place in Sight & Sound to announce their latest releases. Regular readers of the magazine will know the ones I mean – they usually consist of a promotional still accompanied by the title, usually in the same font as their other ads, plus a couple of choice quotes and details of the film's release. In this case the still was true to the title and consisted of a brightly lit image of a young blonde woman in the process of turning a page of music for an older female pianist, both of them recognisable faces and positioned against a blank blue wall. Flicking through the magazine for the first time, that image, together with that title, did one thing really well – it failed to make a significant impression. I saw, I briefly registered, and I moved on without reading any of the white lettered quotes that sat within. Something in my brain had processed the information and come up with a film as banal as the page layout, something to return to and investigate later. Perhaps. Not influenced by advertising, huh? Hmm.

Of course I did return to it – the film society I co-run is screening a 35mm print in April – but I couldn't help thinking that a small portion of this film's potential audience might just pass it by for the very same reasons that misdirected me. The ad suggests a polite, respectable character study, a typically European one that focusses on a background character rather than the obvious lead. The Hollywood film, I mused, would be about the piano player, about the pressures of fame, the highs and the lows, while this French director chooses to concentrate on the life of the girl who just sits there and turns the pages for the maestro. Oh yes, forming a false opinion about anything can be done in blink of an eye. Nothing about the look of that ad (I'm conveniently ignoring the quotes here), suggests a slow burning psychological thriller, and a damned unsettling one at that.

The prologue introduces us to 10-year-old Mélanie, a gifted pianist on the eve of taking an important exam. Her parents, both butchers by trade, insist that even if she doesn't pass then they will continue to pay for her lessons, but she's having none of it. She either passes or gives up on music forever. The day of the competition arrives and her turn comes to perform before the panel. It all goes well until one of the judges, well known concert pianist Ariane Fouchécourt (Catherine Frot), thoughtlessly responds to a request for an autograph, distracting Mélanie and causing her to falter, a mistake that costs her the exam and her potential future.

OK, this requires a minor leap of faith on the part of the audience, or at least this part of it. I, for one, had a little trouble swallowing the idea that anyone could or even would just wander into a music exam in the middle of a performance, especially one being taken by an inevitably nervous child, and ask one of the judges for an autograph. But I'm prepared to swallow it for now to get to the meat of the film.

Ten years later (there's no caption, it doesn't need one) and Mélanie (Déborah François of the Dardene brothers' L'Enfant) lands an internship with a respectable law firm. Her colleague lets slip that their boss, top lawyer Jean Fouchécourt (Pascal Greggory), is looking for someone to watch over his son for a couple of weeks in November. As her internship finishes before then, Mélanie volunteers and Jean gratefully accepts, advising her that due to the country location of his house she'll have to move in with his family. On her arrival she is introduced to Jean's son Laurent and his wife Ariane, who lo and behold is the same Ariane Fouchécourt who was responsible for her failing that exam ten years earlier, an incident the pianist appears to have no recellection of. Jean reveals that Ariane has been left emotionally scarred by a hit-and-run accident two years earlier and is shortly to embark on her first public performance since the incident. He explains that his wife will need all the support she can get, and despite her coolly detached demeanour, Mélanie starts to get emotionally closer to her new employer. On demonstrating her skill as a page turner (an assistant to a pianist who turns the pages of the sheet music while they play), she is asked by Ariane to serve in that function at her upcoming concert.

From the moment Mélanie enters the Fouchécourt household you know that revenge must be on her mind, but what's hard to fathom is when or how or even if she will take it. Red herrings are intermittently thrown into the mix, none of which I have any intention of revealing, and the most obvious opportunity occurs too early in the narrative to actually be taken, although the fact that Mélanie sidesteps this raises further questions about her true intentions. This uncertainty fuels a constant air of low key but very palpable menace, with every look Mélanie gives Ariane seemingly coloured with potentially malevolent purpose, enhanced by Jérôme Lemonnier brooding, unsettling score and the slow tracks and drifting Stedicam shots of Jérôme Peyrebrune's atmospheric cinematography. And that picture on the Sight & Sound ad was on the nose after all – the menace here doesn't hide in the shadows but sits openly in the daylight in brightly lit rooms, with the black walled subterranean swimming pool and its strangely long approach corridor providing the film's only real hint of gothic.

What really sells it are the two lead performances, especially the excellent Déborah François, whose icy cool and subtle suggestiveness make Mélanie probably the most creepily compelling film character I've spent time with all year. It's a masterful portrayal that hints at so much while revealing so little – you can see the cogs turning, but her thought processes are always teasingly indecipherable. The ante is later upped by a sharp reaction to an unwelcome come-on and an extraordinary moment when she unexpectedly meets up with an old friend while shopping and allows her façade to slip, only to switch it back on in a skin-crawling instant.

There are traces here of Joseph Losey's The Servant and the thrillers of Claude Chabrol, but this is Dercourt's movie and never feels borrowed or in the shadow of another. Early on I was certain I knew how things would play out but was repeatedly misdirected, and by the midway mark had given up trying to second-guess a narrative whose surface simplicity hides a subtle complexity that really does keep you guessing. If your preference is for intelligent thrillers that slowly burrow under your skin rather than rollercoaster their way through the plot, that whisper in your ear rather than yell in your face, then The Page Turner should definitely be on your viewing list.

sound and vision

The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer here is a solid one that at first glance appears to lack sparkle due to the toned-down colour palette and subtle exterior gloom, but this is intentional. Detail and contrast levels are generally good, and there is no obvious digital noise, despite the sort of single-colour walls that can invite blocking.

Dolby 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround soundtracks are included and neither are show-off pieces, though both have excellent clarity and dynamic range, reproducing the all-important score and musical performances very nicely. The 5.1 is the superior track, having a little more punch and using the surrounds nicely for location atmospherics.

extra features

Both the English Trailer (1:34) and the French Trailer (1:32) are effectively suggestive without giving too much away.

Filmographies are provided for director Denis Dercourt and actresses Catherine Frot and Déborah François.

Making of Featurette (38:14)
A substantial and informative behind-the-scenes featurette that includes interviews with Denis Dercourt and the two lead players, plus some engaging footage of the shoot, which provides us with a glimpse of the impossibly energetic and upbeat Dercourt's exuberant directing style.

Interview with Director Denis Dercourt and Actress Déborah François (56:25)
A lengthy and worthwhile interview that alternates between an English speaking Dercourt and a French speaking and subtitled François. Inevitably there is some crossover with the interview in the above featurette, but there's still a great deal of interest here, with plenty of detail provided on the development of the characters (especially Mélanie), the casting, the story, the music, the design and the editing. Dercourt freely admits to having an obsession with control and precision with all elements in the film, and has some interesting things to say about the development of digital filmmaking.

summary

A tense, subtle and intelligent tale of revenge and control that is well presented on Artificial Eye's DVD, whose extra features collectively run for longer than the film itself. Recommended.

The Page Turner
La Tourneuse de pages

France 2006
81 mins
director
Denis Dercourt
starring
Catherine Frot
Déborah François
Pascal Greggory
Xavier De Guillebon
Christine Citti

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
French
subtitles .
English
extras
Trailers
Filmographies

Making-of featurette

Interview with Denis Dercourt and Déborah François
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
26 March 2007
review posted
26 March 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews