"Whatever You Say" marks an ambitious and accomplished helming debut for popular Gallic actor Guillaume Canet ("The Beach," "Vidocq"). Something like a French sequel to "Swimming With Sharks," this eventful pic turns a sharp, jaundiced eye toward a naive underling's adventures in the clutches of a powerful media figure he admires.

“Whatever You Say” marks an ambitious and accomplished helming debut for popular Gallic actor Guillaume Canet (“The Beach,” “Vidocq”). Something like a French sequel to “Swimming With Sharks,” if the intern had followed Kevin Spacey’s character to his remote country estate, this eventful pic turns a sharp, jaundiced eye toward a naive underling’s adventures in the clutches of a powerful media figure he admires. Fest exposure is a must, and offshore distribs will definitely want to take a look.

First feature from Les Films du Tresor, which previously made only shorts, should put producer Alain Attal firmly on the map along with 29-year-old Canet. Nifty production design, nimble lensing and a bang-up perf from Francois Berleand as the manipulative boss combine to make this a cut above the norm.

Twentysomething Bastien (Canet), who lives with down-to-earth teacher Fabienne (Clotilde Courau), works at TV company Broustal Prods. as assistant to Philippe Letzger (co-scripter Philippe Lefebvre), the mediagenic host of a grotesque Jerry Springer-like show. Opening segs in which contestants reveal their nasty secrets on air are both funny and smoothly creepy.

Bastien, who warms up the studio audience, cueing applause and catcalls, has an idea for a new show, which Letzger takes credit for originating. When Bastien tentatively asserts his nascent authorship with head honcho Jean-Louis Broustal (Berleand), he finds himself invited to Broustal’s lavish country abode for the weekend. Also there is Broustal’s much younger wife, Clara (fetching newcomer Diane Kruger, Canet’s real-life spouse), ostensibly to work on the new show’s template.

As power trips go, Broustal travels first-class all the way. His hideaway is in an area where cell phones don’t work, and the forested grounds include a huge aviary with a dozen or so vultures. Bastien is clearly out of his depth as soon as Clara demands he make love to her, and Broustal and Clara’s subsequent demands keep Bastien — and the viewer — deliciously off-balance.

Script, which borrows here and there yet still manages to feel original, is solid enough to make the oddball premise hang together, however outrageous the individual developments. Pic has plenty to say about power, corruption and coercion, plus the incipient ennui of excess wealth, but it plays equally well as an off-kilter thriller.

Canet is fine as the earnest young gopher who hopes to emulate his idol and make a brilliant career in television. Prolific character actor Berleand — who routinely appears in half a dozen French pics each year — is obviously having as much fun as, say, Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter.

Camerawork is fluid and muscular, with lots of warranted visual pizzazz built in. Thoughtful costumes, along with the furnishings of Bourstal’s retro space-age digs, lend a special edge to the proceedings. The carefully chosen source music and original score round out the all-pro package.

Whatever You Say

France

Production

A Mars Distribution release of a Les Films du Tresor presentation of a Les Films du Tresor, M6 Films, Caneo Films, Pendrake Films, Nord-Ouest Prod., Marks Films, Sparkling production, with participation of Canal Plus, M6, TPS Cinema, Gimages 5. (International sales: M6, Paris.) Produced by Alain Attal. Directed by Guillaume Canet. Screenplay, Canet, Philippe Lefebvre, Eric Naggar; story, Canet, Lefebvre.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Christophe Offenstein; editor, Stratos Gabrielidis; music, Sinclair; production designer, Alain Veissier; costume designer, Fabienne Katany; sound (Dolby), Pierre Gamet, Gerard Lamps, Jean Goudier; digital effects/animation, Sparx; assistant director, Philippe Landoulsi; casting, Frederique Moidon. Reviewed at Elysees Biarritz screening room, Paris, Dec. 13, 2002. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Francois Berleand, Guillaume Canet, Diane Kruger, Philippe Lefebvre, Clotilde Courau, Daniel Prevost, Jacqueline Jehanneuf, Pierre Jolivet, Gilles Lellouche, Jean-Paul Rouve, Andree Damant.

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