Arts & Events

The Big Picture Opens at the Elmwood, November 16

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Friday November 16, 2012 - 11:51:00 AM

The Big Picture is an engrossing film. Actually, thanks to director Eric Lartigau, it is two magnificent films in one smooth 115-minute package. The original title of this French masterwork (first released in 2011 but only now reaching the US) was L'homme qui voulait vivre sa vie ("The Man Who Wished to Live His Life"). It was, in turn, based on The Big Picture, a 1998 novel by American author Douglas Kennedy. 


The first half of the story takes place in Paris, where our hero Paul Exben (Romain Duris) has buried his free-spirited dreams of becoming a world-class photographer to work as a partner in a top-flight legal firm. He is a doting father with a young son and newborn baby. But, in addition to his regrets over a lost chance at an artistic career, Paul has another cause for anxiety: his marriage has suddenly started to tumble out of control. Sarah (Marina Foïs) is tense. Everything he says annoys or offends her. Paul begins to suspect Sarah is seeing a neighbor named Grégoire Kremer, a tall, ruggedly handsome chap who, to Paul's profound annoyance, presents himself as a working photographer, trying (without success) to score an assignment with National Geographic

Paralyzed by increasing suspicion, confusion and misery, Paul stumbles through appointments and dinner parties, acting badly and making a worse muck of things. 

This, then, is the first film—a tragedy of manners. 

But halfway through this well-crafted tale of love and loss, tragedy turns to violence and Paul's life is upended. 

Leaving Paris far behind, Paul is forced to abandon his career, his wife and his children. Standing on a bluff overlooking the sea, Paul watches the sun sink into the ocean. Never has a sunset radiated such a sense of loss—of children who will grow old but never be seen again; of lives, loves, homes, friends and memories slipping away forever. 

Over ocean waters, through mountain tunnels, dusted by snowstorms, Paul Exben is a man in desperate flight, torn from everyone he once loved. But as Exben exits the confines of the French capital, a marvelous cinematic transformation follows. The dreary background of urban life gives way to a world of awesome natural vistas aglow with color and light. Exben, traveling incognito, blazes a path east to the Balkans, heading toward a rendezvous with a certain place in time. 

In the rugged wilds of Yugoslavia, Exben revisits a lake he remembers from his youth—the backdrop for an amazing photograph he once captured when he was foot-loose, single and free to "just live his life." 

Everywhere the camera turns, the screen becomes an Adriatic postcard. Freed from his past, Paul takes the plunge. The first plunge is a symbolic leap into the lake; the next plunge takes him to a local camera store, where he acquires a 35-mm single lens reflex camera, a case of lenses and all the equipment needed to set up his own darkroom in an isolated home atop the nexus of a windswept valley. 

This "second movie" becomes a tense—and intriguingly contradictory—combination of self-discovery and hide-and-seek. Paul blossoms as an artist, falls in with some colorful local characters, and begins to fall in love with a kind, local woman. 

But when his photos are chosen for a prestigious international exhibition, Paul discovers how celebrity can turn into a horror-house of psychological terror for a man on the run. Exben discovers the peculiar agony of his unusual fate: "You can't make a name for yourself when you're running from your own identity." 

The Big Picture ends with a third mini-movie as Exben exits Yugoslavia, once more caught between a past he needs to outrun and a future he can't imagine. Armed only with one last possession, his camera, he witnesses the unwatchable. Breaking the photojournalist's cardinal rule, he cries out against the crimes he's photographed and his life is suddenly on the line. 

French actor Romain Duris owns this picture. Although some US viewers may be put off by his mid-movie resemblance to red-meat comic Dennis Miller, it is hard to take your eyes off Duris' eyes and his increasingly harried and tormented face. 

It comes as a blessing that the last we see of Paul Exben there is a hint of transcendence. He has been stripped of all worldly goods, recognition and identity but, as he turns away from the screen to face an unknowable future, something strange registers on his face. A smile.