Vincent Mandel is a successful Parisian fashion photographer on the brink of being divorced by his wife Hélène, who's planning to leave for Munich and take the children with her. Joseph Plender is an unscrupulous private investigator who sidelines in setting up unsuspecting victims and blackmailing them. The two cross paths when Joseph's car rear-ends Vincent's and the two discover they were at school together. A happy reunion? Hardly. Vincent's mind is on other things – by this point he's been arrested and falsely accused of rape, then drugged and photographed in a compromising position with a woman who subsequently fell to her death and whose body is now in the boot of his car. The only one who even half-believes his version of events is Sam, the lawyer who is representing him at the hearing that will decide whether it's OK for Hélène to hop the country with the kids.
By the time those two cars collide and Joseph starts dropping round the house, the audience is fully aware that he's behind Vincent's increasing misfortune, but not why. Is Vincent the latest in a randomly selected set of blackmail victims? Has Joseph been hired by person or persons unknown to destroy Vincent's life? Or are his actions driven by something more personal, a loathing of Vincent's profession or social position?
Based on the novel Plender by Get Carter author Ted Lewis, The Serpent relocates the action from Northern England to Paris and tells its story in the style of pre-CGI, plot-driven Hollywood thrillers. The luckless protagonist is certainly in that mould, a middle-class professional with nuclear family fittings, just the sort of chappie the target demographic are believed to want to be. That we join him in the midst of a family crisis is clearly designed to enhance identification, as we know deep down that although things are bound to get worse, it's nothing that can't be fixed by the family unit jointly surviving a life-threatening terror.
But if the American influence supplies the negatives then it can also take credit for a good few of the plus points, and thankfully there are enough to make The Serpent worth burying any silly prejudices you might still have about watching a subtitled movie. Director Eric Barbier kicks off at a sprint and rarely pauses for breath, introducing character detail on the move and quickly launching Vincent on his long and bumpy downward slide. Tension is built and maintained by cluing us in to key facts only as they are revealed to Vincent and by opening a few small windows into Joseph's world, his stern-faced preparations for who-knows-what put on pause only to visit a crypt containing the preserved corpse of his mother.
The Hollywood styling extends to the characters, with the good-looking, clean-shaven and vulnerable Vincent pitted against bearded, scowl-faced and physically threatening Joseph. In the respect you can't really fault the casting – Yvan Attal is convincingly baffled and distraught as Vincent, while Clovis Cornillac only has to glare past the camera to persuade us of Joseph Plender's malicious intent. Olga Kurylenko makes for an intriguing Sofia, a beautiful associate of Plender's whose hinted-at back story could probably warrant its own movie, while veteran actor Pierre Richard is particularly memorable in a small but important role as a blackmail victim who reluctantly comes to Vincent's aid.
A nicely macabre element of Vincent's attempted fight-back aside, The Serpent delivers little that is new and will prompt an occasional groan for its lip-service to transatlantic convention, notably with a leap through a closed window that hardly even ruffles clothing and a final five minutes that's as preposterous and clichéd as it is predictable. But these issues aside, The Serpent is a energetically paced, tightly plotted and involving thriller that may push some familiar buttons, but at least does so with energy and style.
A fine anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer that displays consistently good contrast and sharpness and only minor grain in darker scenes. The colour appears fine, although you have to make the usual allowances for the sort of creative colour timing that has become de rigueur in the modern thriller.
Dolby 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround tracks are on offer, both in the original French. There's actually not much to choose between them, with a good dynamic range and frontal separation on both and only some location backgrounds (traffic, etc.) making much use of the surrounds on the 5.1.
Making of The Serpent (26:01)
A featurette that plays like an extended EPK, complete with cast and crew interview snippets, ever-present backing music and a sometimes oxide-fuelled editing speed. There's still enough here to make it worthwhile viewing, including some behind-the-scenes footage, a brief look at the storyboards and an interesting titbit about the lighting of Plender.
Interview with director Eric Barbier (15:41)
The director talks about his career to date, discovering and adapting Ted Lewis's book, selecting and working with the cast, his role as director and the present worldwide popularity of French thrillers. Conducted in French with fixed English subtitles.
Interview with Producer Eric Jehelmann (5:15)
Jehelmann briefly covers his involvement in the project and expands on Barbier's comments regarding the present international success of French thrillers. This is also in French with fixed subs.
Interview with Olga Kurylenko (7:09)
Kurylenko talks about her role, the difficulty of the stunt fall for someone with a fear of heights, the pleasures of working with the cast and director, and what it was like to be tied up in bondage ropes – you might be surprised by her response.
Theatrical Trailer (1:29)
A snappily cut, fast-paced trailer prepared for the US or English market, it carefully avoids including any dialogue that would give away that the film is in the French language, is a little creative about the plot set-up and includes lots of boom-boom-boom music cues to assure to the action will be hard-hitting.
The rise in popularity of the modern French thriller continues, although it's a trend that appears to be increasingly fuelled by a move away from a specifically French cinematic identity and towards a more American influenced, international model. If this helps open up French cinema to a wider audience then that's no bad thing, although newcomers may have a bit of a leap from The Serpent to Hidden, which producer Eric Jehelmann claims would now not even be classed as a thriller in France. The Serpent certainly has its pleasures and is both well made and involving – just be ready for those rare but memorable credibility stretches. No problems with the disc, which sports a fine transfer and small but engaging collection of extras.