An engrossing police procedural marred by a limp denouement, “Tristan” gives lead thesp Mathilde Seigner a rich opportunity to display her brusque, no-nonsense persona to full advantage as a Paris police inspector on the trail of a unique serial killer. A guilty pleasure peppered with fortuitous coincidences and red herrings, pic is nicely crafted — like all of director Philippe Harrel’s work — and consistently intriguing, if ultimately a little silly. Initial numbers in France upon April 30 opening should be decent, given Seigner’s fan base. Theatrical prospects offshore look iffier, although TV programmers should be hooked by the catchy premise.
Police superintendent Emmanuelle Barsac (Seigner), who’s just broken up with her married lover, lives and breathes her job to the point of not sleeping. Emmanuelle is very close to convincing Bulgarian prostitute Nadia (Adina Cartianu) to snitch on her murderous pimps in exchange for cash and a new passport, when she’s summoned to a suicide site.
The obviously anorexic dead woman put on a wedding dress and overdosed on sleeping pills. Among her effects, Emmanuelle finds a leather-bound copy of “Tristan and Isolde” and a diary recounting in detail her whirlwind affair with the man who gave her the book.
The deceased’s Prince Charming took her to a classy, romantic eatery in a Paris park; they spent an idyllic weekend in the Normandy town of Honfleur; he wrote her magnificent love letters — and then made himself scarce. Through a combo of luck, intuition and Interpol, Emmanuelle discovers that nearly a dozen young women have killed themselves under almost identical circumstances.
A didactic doc (Nicole Garcia) paints a hypothetical portrait of a murderer whose weapon is the sexual frustration brought on by being, literally, too good to be true. When Nadia goes AWOL only to resurface with a dashing rare book dealer (Jean-Louis Loca), Emmanuelle decides the mysterious fellow may well be the killer, whom she’s dubbed “Tristan.”
Pic excels at building a hermetic world in which the gruff Emmanuelle relishes wielding authority. Viewer can’t help wondering if Emmanuelle’s ultra-tough cookie is ever going to crumble, even a little bit.
Suspense is skillfully maintained until the final reel or so, when the narrative turns out to be a few pages short of a full third act.