Sports-minded scripter-helmer Lionel Bailliu expands his brilliantly controlled award-winning short “Squash” (2000) into a far messier but occasionally gripping feature in “Fair Play.” Talky, cynical tale of ruthless office politics tested in the great outdoors is far more energetic than most mainstream French pics. A guilty pleasure for fans of anybody in the name cast, Sept. 6 release narrowly skirts self-parody while dishing out calculated thrills and chills. Script’s template could be adapted in any country with a term for “back-stabbing.”
Bailliu’s Oscar-nommed short, in which a sadistic boss turns a squash match with a young employee into a merciless microcosm of the business world, was tightly scripted and edited. In this feature version, charismatic thesp Eric Savin reprises his role as the aggressively fit, short-fused boss who seems to think the guillotine would be too good for a sales rep who loses a contract.
Pic starts with a list of the rules of sportsmanlike behavior for which the French use the English term “fair play.” All scenes include athletic activities: rowing, playing squash, jogging, playing golf, swimming. However, although not one scene transpires in an actual office, that is the sphere that conditions every action and conversation.
Jean-Claude (Benoit Magimel, amusingly outfitted with a pot belly and dyed red hair) and Alex (Jeremie Renier) are co-workers at the firm run by soulless shark Charles (Savin). Jean-Claude is an ambitious bully who fishes for incriminating info on fellow workers under the guise of male camaraderie. Alex is a nice guy, feeling vulnerable about the affair he’s had with an ill-chosen married woman.
Jean-Claude has some dirt on Charles’ secretary Nicole (Marion Cotillard). Meanwhile, on the golf course, Jean-Pierre Cassel steals a delectably cruel seg as Edouard, Charles’ patrician father-in-law and a powerful board member.
Oddly enough, Edouard uses the same vicious tactics on Charles that Charles used on the squash court to intimidate Alex. There’s always somebody in a position to dish out humiliation all along the corporate food chain.
With staff allegiances in tatters, allegations of sexual harassment on tap and jobs at risk, Charles plans a highly athletic group trip. Outing involves rock climbing, coasting down waterfalls, and swimming beneath stone underpasses in a deep canyon. Joining Charles, Jean-Claude, Alex and Nicole is can-do Beatrice (Melanie Doutey).
Oozing with contempt for your fellow climbers is not the best way to set off on an expedition, especially when almost everybody in the group has at least one nemesis whose “accidental” death would be an expedient solution. Although the characters themselves aren’t particularly believable here, their underlying motivations are. Adrenalin and competitiveness fairly ooze off the screen.
Ambitious pic’s physical antics aren’t always edited to make spatial sense, score is needlessly obvious and clunky dialogue mars the often-intriguing structure. But suspense builds to an unexpected finale and a sardonic coda.