The new French film, Tell No One, is an understated thriller with echoes of The Fugitive and Vertigo. Of course, many French films are subdued and sophisticated, even as they eschew the American passion for action and resolution. French films also often feature detached, amoral characters that evoke little sympathy in viewers. Tell No One, directed by Guillaume Canet and based on a novel by American author Harlan Coben, is different: It is a multi-layered murder mystery at whose center is a deeply sympathetic character, whose true story is not so much a crime thriller as it is a moving love story.
Childhood sweethearts, Alex Beck (François Cluzet) and Margot (Marie-Josée Croze), grow up to become a seemingly happily married couple — until one night, at a lakeside cabin, Alex is knocked unconscious and nearly drowns, while Margot is attacked and murdered. The scene of the murder, or at least what Alex can recall of it, is shown in a flashback sequence, as are scenes of Alex and Margot as children playing contentedly by the lakeshore.
The actual time covered in the film occurs eight years after Margot’s murder, whose mystery was apparently solved with the capture of a serial killer who had been active in the area but who nonetheless in his confession of multiple murders did not admit to Margot’s.
As the eighth anniversary of Margot’s death approaches, Alex is still plagued by a deep sense of loss, but he has gone on with his career as a successful pediatrician, where he is shown to be a prudent and compassionate caregiver. Then, police discover two long-dead bodies in the same area where Margot’s body was found. One of the dead men had a key to a safe deposit box containing pictures of a bruised and badly beaten Margot. These odd coincidences and other circumstantial evidence eventually bring the police to suspect that Alex may actually have murdered his wife.
Indeed, a series of unanswered questions remain concerning the night Margot was murdered. If Alex was knocked unconscious in the water, how did his body end up on the pier? Who made the anonymous call that led police to Alex — who remained in a coma for days — and Margot’s body?
At roughly the same time as the bodies are discovered, Alex begins to receive anonymous e-mails claiming that Margot is alive, with attached videos as proof. Here is a second set of mysteries. Who is sending the e-mails and is that really Margot in the video clips? The e-mail sender warns Alex, “Tell no one. They’re watching us.” Precisely who is watching? At least two groups, it seems: the police of course, but also a shadow group of vicious criminals willing to use any means to discover the truth about Margot.
When that shadow group tortures and murders a woman whom they think had information about Margot, those involved plant evidence at the crime scene incriminating Alex. Tipped off to the cops’ approach while he’s at work, Alex escapes out a hospital window. As the chief investigator tells is lawyer, “He just signed his confession.”
An exhilarating chase scene ensues. At this point, Alex, who is beginning to hope that his wife is still alive, is both pursued by the police and pursuing those who might have further information about his wife. Alex here resembles both the wrongly accused man on the run from The Fugitive and the main character from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, who seems to cling to his love for a dead woman and thus finds himself unable to escape from the past.
Alex’s quest for Margot, dead or alive, raises questions about her past and their marriage — about who she really was, and whether she was truthful and faithful to him. Yet, one of the many surprises in the film is that it does not force Alex into madness or inhumanity.
Indeed, he is not even completely alone in his flight or his quest. At a moment of great need, he gets help from a petty criminal whose hemophilic son Alex had cared for earlier in the film. Also coming to his aid is an independent-minded police detective who sees holes in the official case being built against Alex.
The sub-plots here are numerous, as are the mysterious agents working to solve the case of Margot. Toward the end, Tell No One contains a lengthy confession that purports to tie together all the loose threads in the plot. It is a complicated story, perhaps too complex for viewer credibility. But the film does not end there. After we think we’ve had the full explanation, we get a slightly different version of crucial facts. Then, even after the corrected explanation has been given, the film provides a sort of epilogue that answers for us the big question of the film.
What is surprising about these multiple endings is the way they serve to deepen the story, in terms of both its plot and its emotional resonance. If what happens in the final frame were announced to viewers earlier in the film, they would likely balk at it. But the filmmakers and especially the performance of Cluzet as Alex have prepared for the ending in such as way that it provides a sense of completion and resolution rare in contemporary films.
This “wrong man” story is, at its core, a film about the way memories both good and bad haunt us in the present, and about the way memory and desire are — as T. S. Eliot observed — inextricably intertwined in human life. With Tell No One, what would have been entertaining as a mere thriller, becomes something more: a credible and heartfelt romance.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.