In her first screen role since the 1996 “Diabolique” remake, Isabelle Adjani is made to order for “The Repentant,” a languid but never dull venture about a petulant ex-con, with a hit man on her tail, who has encounters both random and meaningful. Fans of the actress’s lunar looks will be pleased; others may wonder if scripter-director Laetitia Masson, switching from customary leading lady Sandrine Kiberlain, has put too much faith in the presumed iconic power of Adjani meandering around in search of excitement, inner peace or something in between. However, the film would probably be risible without her and the commandingly melancholy Sami Frey.
Pre-credits, two men (Jacques Bonnaffe, Samy Naceri) in a prison setting agree that an unnamed woman is “a killer” and must be neutralized before she “kills again.” Whether she does her killing in the literal or the femme fatale sense remains to be seen.
Charlotte (Adjani) disembarks in a Paris train station, shoplifts a pair of dark glasses, retrieves a small suitcase from a locker, puts on a long black dress reminiscent of Morticia Addams and boards the first train to Nice. Spying on her, Karim (Naceri) grabs the next train.
Schlepping her wheeled suitcase and using a fresh name each time, Charlotte tries to talk her way into work in the luxury boutiques of Nice. At Cartier she catches the eye of Paul, a trim, intense man (Frey).
It becomes obvious she has no place to go and very little money. Eventually, Paul offers her a post as his companion, with sex definitely not part of the bargain. Meanwhile, Karim is scouring every hotel in town brandishing her photo.
Apart from a riveting speech at the 70-minute mark in which Charlotte recounts the circumstances that carried her from a working class Paris suburb to the present, pic consists almost entirely of understated scenes that may or may not be freighted with meaning. Well-chosen thesps lend themselves to Masson’s baroque canvas of loneliness in the lap of luxury.
In smaller roles, Maria Schneider and legendary jailbird-turned-novelist Jose Giovanni lend authority to a brief scene as Charlotte’s sister and father.
Widescreen camerawork reinforces the searching in which protags are engaged, but employs the technique of panning from face to face across an empty middle ground a tad too often. In addition to a haunting original theme composed by Jocelyn Pook, pic’s narrative propulsion relies almost as much on a succession of mostly English-lyric pop standards as it does on probing close-ups of Adjani’s face.