September 2007 -- The Page Turner (La Tourneuse de Pages). Starring Catherine Frot, Deborah François, Pascal Greggory, Xavier de Guillebon, Christine Citti, Clotilde Mollet, Jacques Bonnaffé, Antoine Martynciow, Julie Richalet, Martine Chevallier, André Marcon, and Arièle Butaux. Music by Jérôme Lemmonier. Cinematography by Jerôme Peyrebrune. Editor-in-Chief, François Gédigier. Written by Denis Dercourt and Jacques Sotty. Directed by Denis Dercourt.
(Tartan Films/Diaphana Films, 2006, Color, 85 minutes, in French with subtitles. MPAA Rating: Not Rated).
Thanks to the people of France—who, by electing Nicholas Sarkozy as their president, have finally come to their senses and reversed the course of national suicide on which they were careening—I can now avail myself of that nation’s fine products, which I hitherto had been boycotting. I am now free to gorge on toasted Camembert and to wash it down with my favorite Bordeaux, Mouton Cadet Rosé. My little boy Evan can now laugh at the Looney Tunes exploits of Pepe Le Peu. More significantly, I am able once again to treat myself to Gaul’s outstanding film exports.
Just in time, too: Writer and director Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner is a brilliant gem of filmmaking. Initially, I anticipated the prospect of watching it with some trepidation, because the poster touted a suspense movie in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock and Claude Chabrol. Usually, such advertising hype bears little relation to what’s actually on the screen: hack work by semi-competent directors with only the vaguest understanding of what makes a movie suspenseful, and whose pictures bear only superficial resemblance to the films of such celebrated masters of suspense. Fortunately, such is not the case here. The Page Turner is a brilliantly paced psychological flick that recalls Hitchcock’s Marnie; but more than any film by Chabrol, it instead reminded me of François Truffaut’s revenge thriller The Bride Wore Black.
Déborah François, in just her second leading role (her excellent debut was in The Child in 2005), is icily persuasive as Mélanie Prouvost, an alluring, duplicitous femme fatale. As the credits dissolve, we find her as a young girl of eleven, practicing the piano in the comfortable bourgeois flat above her parents’ butcher shop, hoping to win a coveted scholarship to a musical conservatory. Her later audition, however, is rudely interrupted when a classical-music fan rudely asks a jury member, famed pianist Ariane Fouchécourt (Catherine Frot), for an autograph. Unable to pick up where she left off, Mélanie fumbles her way through the rest of the piece. She leaves the audition fuming, returns home, and then puts away the bust of Beethoven that graced her family’s upright piano, presumably forever.
We next see Mélanie as an attractive young lady working as a filing clerk at a Paris law firm. Although seemingly demure, she projects intense determination in her hard-set eyes. She quickly obtains a position from her boss (Pascal Greggory) as nanny for his son at his country estate. Soon, we learn the reason why: M. Fouchécourt’s wife is the same famous musician whose insensitive autograph-signing a decade earlier had crushed Mélanie’s career dream of becoming a concert pianist.
François’s portrayal of Mélanie and her visual depiction are quite unsettling.
Mélanie insinuates herself into the family’s daily life. She goes beyond her job description to help their son Tristan (Antoine Martynciow) with his piano studies and also becomes Ariane’s assistant. Unlike the arrogant virtuoso of ten years before, Ariane has been shaken by an automobile accident and humbled by a case of nerves and stage fright. As if on cue, Mélanie volunteers her services as Ariane’s page-turner. Because of her pianistic knowledge, she proves herself an adept, sensitive collaborator during rehearsals of the trio to which Ariane belongs, and she quickly wins the older woman’s trust and friendship.
Mélanie is as calculating as the title character played by Anne Baxter in All About Eve. Methodically, she exploits the situation through a series of connivances that places Ariane in a desperate state of dependence upon her charge. But, ironically, Mélanie is by now completely oblivious to the bounties of fame and fortune that she once so passionately sought; her sights are set solely on Ariane’s demise.
Usually, a revenge tale is meant to instill cathartic emotions, either for a hero who has undone a great evil (such as Charles Bronson in Death Wish) or against a villain who’s gone too far (think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction). However, director Dercourt does not let Mélanie off so easily. There is no catharsis offered here—only stasis.
I found both François’s portrayal of Mélanie and her visual depiction to be quite unsettling. We witness a young girl bearing a grudge for half her brief life, for a slight that any sane person would have gotten over in a few months, perhaps a year, and then moved on. Now, outside the context of her plot against Ariane, her life is pitifully empty, her lonesome existence preoccupied with quotidian household tasks and perfunctory phone calls to her parents. Fixated upon righting a largely imagined wrong, Mélanie has permanently, irrevocably robbed herself of any semblance of a productive and fruitful future. The pages she turns are only those in a piano score; but the hatred that motivates that activity fates her never to turn over a new page in her own life.
Photography director Jérôme Peyrebrune’s shots are nearly all static, objective; this tale of deceit is told almost entirely through editor François Gédigier’s exactingly tight montage of images. Composer Jérôme Lemmonier’s minimalist score for strings stresses Mélanie’s monomaniacal obsession and further notches up the tension. The use of Schubert’s “Notturno” trio and Shostakovich’s agitated Second Piano Trio serves as brilliant counterpoint in foreshadowing her evil intentions: Ariane, her violinist, and her cellist are oblivious to Mélanie’s ploy; but by juxtaposing the young protégé’s fixed stare with the slashing strings and percussive piano beat, director Dercourt skillfully evinces her ruthless cruelty.
The Page Turner demonstrates how placing one’s self-esteem at the mercy of another will sabotage any hope of actually attaining it. It’s a film that compels thought long after you’ve left the theater—and it’s simultaneously the most tantalizing suspense movie I’ve seen since David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner. Its particular genius is that in an age when so many directors try to overwhelm the viewer with special effects and cinematic pyrotechnics, Denis Dercourt is able to send a shiver right through us by means of the forgotten arts of dramatic understatement and virtuosic montage.