Political conspiracies are a serious matter, undoubtedly deserving of the attention they garner. That very attention, however, must then lead us somewhere — it must, in some way, expose the corruption of the political system in question. Without this exposure, our attention is left directionless; instead of being enlightened, we remain confused. Taking its inspiration very clearly from political conspiracy thrillers of the ‘70s, such as “The Conversation,” and drawing from real-life historical events in France, Scribe is a topical, intriguing film that ultimately says too little of consequence.
The subdued protagonist, Duval, loses his job due to burnout, and two years later is still in need of employment. When contacted by a mysterious man — Clément — with a mysterious job offer, Duval doesn’t ask too many questions. His job will be simple: He will transcribe recordings of tapped phone conversations. When the things he hears become too closely related to current events, it seems like things are about to take a turn for the dramatic. And yet, despite a strong start — and particularly engaging scenes of Duval’s first days on the job — at this point, the film’s pace quickly falters without a solid destination for all of the anticipation and suspense. The reason for this is that director and co-writer Thomas Kruithof simply does not dig deep enough. Driving the story forwards through Duval’s life certainly provides an interesting point of access to the underlying political plot, but this access is rendered somewhat meaningless without any further development. Unwilling to reveal too much for the sake of maintaining suspense, Scribe instead sacrifices its previously compelling momentum.
Duval’s personal life is absorbing primarily due to a fantastic performance by François Cluzet (“The Intouchables”), whose understated reactions are truly artful. An evidently versatile actor, Cluzet is able to convey both the depressions of Duval’s life and the controversy of the conversations he hears with minimal yet effective expressions. In contrast, every time we jump away from Duval and into the conspiracy, the atmosphere becomes noticeably flat, with too many unimportant details used as an attempt to distract from the lack of any substantial revelations. For example, when we are introduced to Sara (Alba Rohrwacher, “Perfect Strangers”), there is a lot of potential for her character — a struggling alcoholic like Duval, she is able to connect to him on a level that could reveal much about his own personality. Yet she is instead used in a much too stereotypical manner, serving merely as a damsel in distress: A pretty face to endanger for the sole purpose of making a hero. Other secondary characters are also arguably lifeless — police chief Labarthe (Sami Bouajila, “A Stormy Summer Night”) is two-dimensional, and the sketchy Gerfaut (Simon Abkarian, “Casino Royale”) has no likable qualities. The only exception to this is Clément, who is imbued with just the right amount of malaise by Denis Podalydès (“The Sweet Escape”) to make a strong antagonist.
The film’s strengths lie on the surface — it is a visually striking film that is aesthetically very on point for its genre. From the melancholy, moody color palette to the use of tape cassettes and typewriters, the visual atmosphere is heavily steeped in mystery. Furthermore, to take a job so arduous as typing in a empty room and turn it into interesting cinema requires no less than a little magic in the editing room. Editor Jean-Baptiste Beaudoin’s work remains noteworthy throughout the film, highlighting the skillful cinematography of many well constructed scenes.
Search any deeper, though, and we’re presented with a screenplay that is superficial and plot devices that are uninspired. With more insight into and genuine commentary on the inner workings of politics, Scribe could have truly revealed the nature of conspiracy in an innovative way. But by relying too heavily on emulating the look of its predecessors, Kruithof cuts the legs out from under the film. To be influenced by a genre is one thing; to restrict oneself to the detriment of creativity is another.