Adoomed romance with a serial killer drives the suspense in Anne Fontaine’s “In His Hands,” which intrigues with its coolly analytical, decidedly French take on some fairly well-trodden, Hollywood-standard plot components. If the overall experience is not psychologically complex enough to disguise that familiarity, the accomplished filmmaker and her able cast still manage to provide rewards in the delicacy with which they sketch the way a woman in a marriage neither happy nor unhappy drifts into an affair, and persists despite clear indications of extreme danger. Festival and Euro-circuit bookings on the order of Fontaine’s previous films appear likely.
Married insurance claims assessor Claire (Isabelle Carre) meets veterinarian Laurent (Benoit Poelvoorde) when he files a claim for water damage. Although he’s visibly annoyed by the discovery that he has a limited ceiling on his coverage, Laurent is disarmed by the young woman’s candid manner and attempts to charm her with his self-effacing humor and his “predisposition tragique.” Laurent continues to find excuses to prolong the association well after his claim has been settled.
Almost casually, Fontaine drops in the information that a serial killer has been terrorizing the area, leaving a trail of dead women. There’s never any real doubt that behind Laurent’s sad eyes there lurks a shadowy personality, just as there’s no mystery regarding who the killer’s next intended victim will be: Claire’s friend Valerie (Valerie Donzelli) is presented as the kind of borderline slutty, disloyal girlfriend who invariably ends up with a knife at her throat.
Fontaine appears far less interested in the mechanics of the genre than in the indefinable forces that compel Claire to keep her growing suspicions to herself.
The novelty of casting a natural funnyman as a psychopath has been dulled by one Robin Williams role too many, but Poelvoorde’s rubber features and hangdog expression give a desperate, destabilizing edge to the role. He conveys a strong sense of the conflicted feelings engendered by his overwhelming connection to Claire: His self-hatred for being unable to resist his most brutal impulses, and his subconscious wish to be captured.
In the drama’s key role, Carre’s unaffected, open manner and gentle spontaneity help offset Fontaine’s more emotionally chilled approach. Claire’s marriage to a photographer (Jonathan Zaccai) and her life as a young mother seem reasonable content, making her fully-aware entry into a relationship that starts out unfathomable and takes a far darker turn more interesting.
If, ultimately, the teasing script by Fontaine and Julien Boivent fails to deliver entirely on its promise of a deeper exploration of attraction and love, Carre’s effortless intensity keeps auds watching.
While Fontaine has opted for a cool, almost sterile look, Denis Lenoir’s limber camera and the crisp editing by Philippe Ravoet and Luc Barnier give the pensive thriller a polished, well-put-together veneer.