aka Complices, aka Partners
Reviewed in October 2009 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Frédéric Mermoud. Cast: Cyril Descours, Nina Meurisse, Gilbert Melki, Emmanuelle Devos, Joana Preiss, Frédéric Epaud, Eric Laugérias. Screenplay: Frédéric Mermoud and Pascal Arnold.
Twitter Capsule: A perfect festival surprise, handling two-track plot with rare ease; well-acted, well-told within a conventional form

Photo © 2009 Saga Productions
Thank goodness someone invented television, or the Earth would never have had the chance to pose itself such trenchant questions as, What do we as a planet most deeply prefer: quasi-democratic contests among amateur singers, or tense four-way standoffs among forensic analysts, the suspected culprits in their cases, the mauled and blue-lipped victims, and their own upsurges of "humanizing" emotion and bias? Put a microphone or a pair of sterilized tweezers in someone's hand, and the whole world thrills. Eventually, someone will figure out a way to blend these two indefatigable premises, somewhere in the vicinity of So You Think You Can Autopsy?.

Meanwhile, thank goodness, too, that someone invented movies, so that scenarios that could easily boil down to an extended episode of CSI: Lyon actually pop on the big screen, taking advantage of unexceptional but unimpeachably sturdy craftsmanship to tell a two-pronged story about two risk-taking teenagers, at least one of whom is doomed to wash ashore on some brackish French riverbank, and about the two police investigators who keep learning things, and rarely the things they expect to learn, by burrowing further into the case. Accomplices, scheduled for its commercial debut in France this coming January, lacks the burnished elegance and sub-epidermal access to the audience's nerves that the edgier, stranger crime fictions of Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips, The Beat that My Heart Skipped) have consistently attained, and which director-cowriter Frédéric Mermoud strives for at regular intervals in the newer film. Yet, when so many movies start shriveling or blushing as you hold them up to their most obvious influences and role models, Accomplices keeps chugging with a strong, healthy gait; you recognize it isn't everything a movie could be, but what Mermoud has created, with particular credit to his exceptional casting and management of his actors, brings estimable credit to this well-wrought genre picture. Here is a case where being inside the scenes impresses more than recalling them afterward, but given the sort of picture this is, that's more than fair.

Even when you factor out the Emmanuelle Devos Advantage (EDA), the algebraic principle by which all films acquire more interest the minute her name shows up in the credits, Accomplices distinguishes itself not just by running two interbraided narratives that compel equal interest throughout the film—and how many movies ever pull that off?—but by how quickly the film is able to elevate our curiosity to such a slickly engrossing level. An implacable zoom into the face of Vincent Bouvier (Cyril Descours), the strangled, water-logged boy discovered in the mud at the movie's outset, commences our first flashback to his disreputable but charismatic life. That push-in instantly marshals the succinct, exploitative purity of a Robert Aldrich or a Sam Fuller accent, or an Otto Preminger perversity when he wasn't trying to win Academy prizes. Mermoud's introduction of the co-lead in Vincent's storyline, a watchful but randy and disarmingly ordinary teenager named Rebecca (Nina Meurisse), has a genuine offhandedness that is almost always missing from how genre films acquaint us with their protagonists. Accomplices avoids any overtures toward predestination, grim or otherwise, which gives the movie two kinds of kick: it's easy to imagine that Vincent and Rebecca could have survived their travails here (if only, inevitably, to run afoul of some other ones), but it's even simpler to imagine that they never would have met.

By the end of the film, and even more impressively by the middle, that idea of two lives that might never have crossed has gathered some poignancy, partly because Accomplices has its fingers confidently on the pulse of what is heedlessly passionate and what is utterly desultory about late adolescence and extremely nascent "adulthood." When the young couple goes to buy sneakers as part of a larger, more lurid errand, Mermoud smartly keeps his camera at the level of the shoes, shooting and splicing all the pairs that Vincent and Rebecca consider, and anchoring their wayward life-choices within a context of young, distorted priorities, privileging immediate appeal over long-range risk, and taking for granted that ironic mental distance from the binds and impostures that one ties oneself into will provide greater insulation than is almost ever the case. Meanwhile, from Descours and Meurisse, Mermoud coaxes two of the best performances I have yet seen at the festival. Beyond the erotic self-confidence that both actors are soon conjoined to exude—he with more trained swagger and more outward "attractiveness" than she, though they both betray an invigorating openness to the camera and to each other—they never get stuck on vending out something we will recognize as Acting, opting for a deceptive, psychologically nimble, subtly dilated and relaxed naturalism on screen. They ought to be shoo-ins for the Most Promising Actor and Actress nods at the next Césars, or whenever Accomplices qualifies for consideration.

To make a compact scenario even more compact, Vincent is a hustler though he does not leap to admit this. The way he strings Rebecca along with the line that he works in "real estate," despite the fact that he can't have been shaving his face for more than two or three years, is probably true depending on how you look at it, and his lie is wittily abetted by Accomplices' sustained sensitivity to local environments, whether of children's bedrooms, mobile homes, police stations, hotel suites, or the eeerily unmarked edifices of brand new subdivisions, around which swirl the rumors of lucrative orgies. We know from an early point, or at least we think we do, where Vincent will meet his bloody end (Rebecca's whereabouts are unknown as the film begins), and rather than slackening the film's suspense, at least two scenes in the film absorb a potency and tension they wouldn't otherwise have if they didn't transpire precisely where his blood will later smear the walls.

In the same way, stray moments where Vincent's cell phone rings can make a quotidian scene prickle to life, and the editing choices, within sequences and certainly between the two major threads, are exceptionally suggestive. From one conversation among the detectives about needing to track some sex workers who meet their clients in pairs, Accomplices cuts to the first evening when Rebecca brings Vincent home to meet her young, pretty, neglectful, fashion-conscious mother (Clean's Joana Preiss). This single edit serves to heighten the scandalous, even the incestuous tug of this scene: the woman's unostentatious longing to be her daughter, or maybe her attraction to Rebecca's new companion that prompts her not to ask too many questions. Cutting straight from a later, staged encounter when one of the male policemen asks a young hustler to recruit a woman into their unfolding assignation to the the kinetic, invigorating moment as he and his female partner apprehend this slinky young man—further accented by subtly canted angles and intent gazes between the arresting officers—only underscores the erotics of what they do for a living, and potentially how they feel about each other, and about their victims. As executed, these devices aren't nearly as belabored as they sound, even if the title of the film extends a rather obvious invitation to compare the analogies between the young, pitiful anti-heroes who start selling their nubile couplehood to older, untrustworthy clients and, on the "other" hand, the male-female detective team who confide a lot about their private regrets and longings, and even work out together at the gym and shower in the same locker room, but never admit to any desire for each other.

About those cops: there is nothing you haven't seen before in the opening bit as they discover poor Vincent and start gleaning the details of his case, but the actors ably flesh out the relationship, either through Devos's quietly competitive streak and her wonderfully bored reactions to salacious details ("Ah, oui?" she mouths as she transcribes her first testimony about secret groupfucks that might matter to her case) or because of the underplayed sarcasm that Gilbert Melki's Detective Cagan permits himself when his witnesses badly dissemble. "I'm not good at writing things," claims one young boy-for-hire who insists he never advertises over the web; "It's not exactly a novel," Melki retorts, nonplussed. These two know each other so well, they know exactly where to find each other when they flee a bad date, and neither has any chance of sidewinding his or hr way to an intimate, unspoken plea to the other. They always see each other coming from several sentences away, or at least, they usually do. Again, these are not revolutionary points of plotting or characterization, but the confidence and concision with which Accomplices summons them together has been not much evidenced in recent policiers.

Furthermore, the intellectual and emotional transparency between Devos's and Melki's characters, however erotically stifled, both furnishes and explains how thrown they look, Melki especially, when they encounter someone whom they truly don't understand, such as Melki's maritally wayward brother, a "loose end" in the script who is more intriguing for Cagan's refusal to engage him. The discontinuous dialogue that these brothers exchange in the first scene of what becomes the detection plotline ("You're on form!" / "Can't complain." / "I got that pharmaceuticals contract." / "What about your hair?") is more than enough to attune us to Cagan's autism with family and loved ones, no matter how proficient he is at his job or how generous he is when he finds himself moved. An even more savory instance of Melki's limitations arrives in relation to a haughty female insurance lawyer, a cameo witness within the overall film, who brazenly offers many more details than Cagan was expecting about her and her husband's long careers as very, very satisfied customers of young Vincent. Her sangfroid and his surprise are so respectively rich that the climax in the dialogue, as she asks "Why do you want to regulate sex?", survives its on-the-nose transparency.

Indeed, we could equally well ask Melki's and Devos's differently lonely characters why they want to regulate work, at the expense of each other's evident carnal appeal, and the sustained way in which they so fully and interestedly notice each other. Accomplices gets more Law & Orderish than ever with some surprise twists in the exposition around Vincent's murder, a heavy-handed cross-cut between two asymmetrically pivotal events, and some late-breaking confessions and dramatic revelations, all leading to the profound sentimentalism of one character's outreach to another. A lesser movie wouldn't support such a soft and disappointingly familiar finale, but the muscular, unpretentious style and the savvy elevation of individual choices and narrative beats along the way make this a solidly gratifying thriller, if not two solidly gratifying thrillers, cannily and memorably partnered. Grade: B

VOR: (3)   (What is this?)
The redemption of the two-track narrative, prompting equal audience investments in both plots, is almost as much a reason to lionize Accomplices as is its totally plausible grasp on the rush and impulse of young infatuation, which doesn't get dialed all the way up to amour fou but still catches the emotional lightning of what it feels like when you slip into a relation you'd never have imagined for yourself, with a person for whom you'll do things that astonish you. The handling of the actors, the build-up of suspense... virtually everything works in this movie even if little of it breaks new ground, and since so much of the talent involved is so untested, working in a genre that should succeed more often than it does, it projects a kind of value on first pass that I hope would hold up on a re-viewing.

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