Review: ‘The Hook’

"Thou shalt not kill" proves excellent advice -- with a twist -- in "The Hook." Keenly lensed and neatly thesped tale of an unsuccessful novelist who obliges a bestselling colleague by dispatching the rich guy's wife, is an exceedingly French spin on the hard-boiled American thriller. Central trio of well-cast vets keeps things wacky and engaging.

“Thou shalt not kill” proves excellent advice — with a twist — in “The Hook.” Keenly lensed and neatly thesped tale of an unsuccessful novelist who obliges a bestselling colleague by dispatching the rich guy’s wife, is an exceedingly French spin on the hard-boiled American thriller. Although narrative grows increasingly implausible and is marred by an unanchored final stretch, central trio of well-cast vets keeps things wacky and engaging. Offshore viewers weaned on TV police series will rapidly poke holes in delectably amoral plot, but suspension of disbelief is rewarded within the parameters of the genre, suggesting possible international play.

Down on his luck novelist Ben Castelano (Francois Cluzet) misses his train home to Marseilles after an interview in Paris for a dreaded job in the French boondocks as a Spanish teacher. While killing time in the station newsstand, he bumps into former pal Brice Cantor (Bernard Giraudeau), now a suave megabucks author whose latest book is visible on the shelf between translations of Tom Clancy and Patricia Cornwall.

Ben, who moved down south in 1995, no longer has a publisher as his books have never sold more than a few thousand copies. Brice, who is headed for his palatial country home on the Riviera, tells Ben that a messy on-going divorce from his wife Lucie (Anne Brochet) has left him blocked as a writer and threatens to bankrupt him.

On the train, Brice, who is accustomed to getting his way, lays out a mutually beneficial solution. Brice has no manuscript; Ben, who also specializes in crime fiction, has one ready to go. Brice will submit Ben’s novel as his own work and the two writers will split the hefty advance.

When Brice remembers that Lucie will get half of his writing revenue — leaving him without a half to give to Ben — Brice concludes that Lucie must die and that Ben, who’s never met her and lives far away, is the perfect candidate to kill her. Perfect except for the fact that he’s a mild-mannered honest citizen.

Ben loves his wife Susie (Karin Viard) as much as Brice hates his. But, when Ben tells Susie that Brice wants him to kill Lucie, Susie warms to the idea in record time and tacitly encourages Ben to accept the deal.

Ben returns to Paris, meets and murders Lucie in a nicely handled series of scenes and comes home to his typewriter filled with inspiration. As the police endeavor to track down the culprit, the crime awakens strange guilt-fueled yearnings in Susie and Brice who each start to unravel.

Helmer and co-adapter Thomas Vincent, whose much-praised 1999 debut “Karnaval” highlighted working class concerns under gray skies, is equally at home in the rarefied air of cultural nabobs and extravagant lifestyles. Pic excels at exposing the gap between — not the haves and have-nots — but rather the have-lots and wish-they-had-mores.

The toll on those whose hands are — technically — clean is full of surprises but not nearly as cogent as the basic set-up.

Thesps are gung-ho no matter how far-fetched things get. Krishna Levy’s ominous score is a dandy complement to crispy lensing in Paris streets and on the Cote d’Azur.

The Hook

Directors Fortnight / France

Production

A Mars Distribution release of a Fidelite Production presentation of a Fidelite Production, France 3 Cinema, StudioCanal, Gimages Film production with participation of Canal Plus and TPS Star. (International sales: StudioCanal, Issy-les-Moulineaux, France.) Produced by Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonier. Directed by Thomas Vincent. Screenplay, Maxime Sassier, Vincent, based on the novel "The Contract" by Donald E. Westlake.

Crew

Camera (color), Dominique Bouilleret; editor, Pauline Dairou; music, Krishna Levy; production designer, Michel Barthelemy; casting, Brigitte Moidon. Reviewed at Forum des Images, Paris, May 5, 2004. (In Cannes Film Festival -- Directors Fortnight.) Running time: 111 MIN.

With

Ben Castelano - Francois Cluzet Brice Cantor - Bernard Giraudeau Susie Castelano - Karin Viard Lucie Cantor - Anne Brochet
With: Jacques Spiesser, Antoine Chappey.
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