Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Middling Mystery

Melvil Poupaud & Laura Smet in TOWARDS ZERO (Photo: Zeitgeist Video)

Towards Zero
Directed by
Pascal Thomas
With Danielle Darrieux, Chiara Mastroianni, François Morel, Melvil Poupaud and Laura Smet

Films based on Agatha Christie whodunits have a hit-or-miss history. For every skillfully done And Then There Was None or Murder on the Orient Express, there’s a middling Death on the Nile or Evil Under the Sun. Pascal Thomas’s Towards Zero leans toward the latter. For this movie—based on Christie’s 1944 novel of the same name—director his army of screenwriters has transposed the action from the British seacoast to Brittany, but the essential murder mystery remains intact.

Octogenarian Camilla Tressilian (Danielle Darrieux) invites her nephew Guillaume Neuville, a famous tennis player, for the weekend at her seaside mansion. He, in turn, not only brings his current wife, Caroline, a high-strung, jealous woman, but also his ex, Aude, whom Camilla prefers. When Camilla turns up dead one morning, everyone present, from Guillaume to the servants, could have done it, but who had the motive as well as the means? It takes the eminent Inspector Martin Bataille to calmly but methodically solve the case.

Thanks to Thomas’s brisk direction, Towards Zero moves effectively once the inspector single-mindedly pursues the crime’s solution, but the lead-up to the killing is bungled by broad acting and unsurprising revelations that leave this adaptation behind the best Christie-based movies. A few amusingly handled twists occur right before the case is solved, and most viewers won’t be able to guess the identity of the killer (even if the culprit is a prime suspect), but the acting is painfully uneven. Glamorous Laura Smet chews the scenery mercilessly as the venomous Caroline, while in comparison, Chiara Mastroianni is shrewish and almost catatonic as Aude. Their characters’ hatred for each other begs the question: why would Guillaume invite his ex-wife for the weekend? At least in the original story, the women are neither friends nor foes—they tolerate each other with no ill will.

It’s always delightful to see the 90-ish Darrieux, a true grand dame of French cinema, even though she has little to do before Camilla is offed. As Guillaume, Melvil Poupaud makes the most of the perfectly snide brat born with a silver tennis racket in his hand, and François Morel ingratiatingly plays the inspector. As for the lovely Brittany locations, they remain the smartest reason for moving Christie’s indestructible story south of the English Channel.
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