The timing couldn't be better for "The Vanishing Point," another hidden-message-in-a-painting pic that taps into the ever-growing market for "lives of the artists" exposes.

The timing couldn’t be better for “The Vanishing Point,” another hidden-message-in-a-painting pic that taps into the ever-growing market for “lives of the artists” exposes. French painter Antoine Watteau gets the treatment here, as a student sets out to discover the real story behind the artist’s choice of subjects. Handsomely mounted by shorts helmer Laurent de Bartillat, pic has more logic holes than all the restorers in the world could fill, but provided auds don’t analyze too much, this low-key sleeper could see moderate biz after late November opening, with chances of scattered offshore play.

Art history student Lucie (Sylvie Testud) develops a theory on the identity of a mysterious female figure, seen from behind, in Watteau’s work. When not studying the artist, Lucie works at a photocopy shop, whose windows overlook a small square from which she watches the mute, mime-like Vincent (James Thierree).

Lucie offers friendship, and possibly more, but the withdrawn man suffers an aneurysm and falls into a coma. Before then, he gives Lucie a photo of himself as a child in an institute for handicapped kids — in the background, she notes an 18th-century painting that intrigues her.Tracing its history, Sylvie learns the work, by Gilles-Marie Oppenord, is being sold in Ghent, Belgium, in a few days. She heads to the auction to bid on the mediocre painting she’s convinced holds the key to Watteau’s career.

It’s never explained why Lucie is convinced the painting is important, or whether Vincent knew something before he gave her the photo. De Bartillat and co-scripter Alain Ross would have been better off inventing an artist out of whole cloth rather than roping in poor Oppenord (also known as Oppenordt), who certainly did exist, knew Watteau and was a considerably better draftsman than anything fictitiously ascribed to his near-namesake here.

Laymen will know nothing of that, of course; nor will they be aware that stripping a painting takes a lot longer than a short nap. Even without this knowledge, auds will be hard-pressed to figure out how random events and unexplained theories lead to the discovery of a whole new Watteau.

Pic actually wants to be longer, to bring out more of Vincent’s role: De Bartillat is keen to make connections between Lucie’s work and Vincent’s persona (he’s also obsessed with the Bievre, a river now completely covered over by Paris’ urban sprawl), and this back-and-forth between what’s hidden and what’s observed could have been built up for a more satisfying series of parallels. It’s not that Bartillat needs to ease up on the subtleties, but a little more depth would increase involvement.Pity that, once again, the intense Thierree– whose role is basically dropped from the pic’s second half — is given little to do, though his inner turmoil is well matched by Testud’s own desperate, blinding resolve. Perhaps one day the right role with the right director will give him something really sustainable to show off his talent.

Richly saturated, elegant visuals rep a strong point, with just the right amount of Steadicam to give the sense of an obsession forcing those in its grip to teeter ever so slightly off-balance.

The Vanishing Point

France

Production

An ID Distribution release (in France) of a Shilo Films production, in association with 2.1 Films, Cofinova 3, with the participation of Canal Plus, CineCinema, TV5, La Centre National de la Cinematographie. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Geoffroy Grison, Fred Bellaiche. Co-producers, Noah Harlan, Valerie Saas-Lovichi. Directed by Laurent de Bartillat. Screenplay, de Bartillat, Alain Ross.

Crew

Camera (color), Jean-Marc Selva; editor, Tina Baz Legal; music, David Moreau; production designer, Sandra Castello; costume designers, Elisabeth Rousseau, Noemie Rivier, Juliette de Bartillat; sound (Dolby Digital), Francois Sempe, Sylvain Malbrant, Jean-Guy Veran; assistant director, Jean-Cedric Rimaud; casting, Richard Rousseau, Constance Demontoy. Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (Cinema 2007), Oct. 22, 2007. (Also in American Film Market.) Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Sylvie Testud, Jean-Pierre Marielle, James Thierree, Agathe Dronne, Christiane Millet, Miglen Mirtchev, Chantal Trichet, Jean-Gabriel Nordmann. (French, Flemish dialogue)
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