Xavier Giannoli's 'In the Beginning' is

A small-time crook reinvents himself as the head of a nonexistent construction company.

A small-time crook on the road to nowhere reinvents himself — somewhat by accident — as the head of a nonexistent freeway construction company in Xavier Giannoli’s “In the Beginning.” True story of a stretch of asphalt rolled out by formerly jobless road workers in northern France, under the command of an impostor, blends social critique, character drama and crime into one smooth, good-looking package. With “Tell No One” star Francois Cluzet as well as Gerard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Devos in the cast, pic should be able to make inroads into high-end Euro arthouses despite its 2½ -hour running time.

Pic is Giannoli’s second to play in the Cannes competition after his Depardieu starrer “The Singer” (2006). And like that film, “In the Beginning” does not eschew dramatic conventions, but rather uses them to craft something subtler than a mere genre work.

By chance, recently released con man Paul (Cluzet) stumbles on a small community in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region, whose inhabitants have been struggling to make ends meet ever since a huge construction site for a nearby motorway was abandoned some years earlier.

Posing as an employee of construction giant CGI for a minor scam, Paul finds himself inundated with questions about what the locals assume can only be the reopening of the site. When he realizes the town’s out-of-business subcontractors are offering 15% in cash to secure their participation, he decides to reopen the site by setting up a “subsidiary” of CGI with a staff of one: himself.

Everyone in the town, including the attractive, widowed mayor, Stephane (Devos), is too overjoyed at the prospect of economic prosperity to question some of Paul’s stranger working methods.

Though the film is as much about telling the story of a depressed northern French town — the flipside of “Welcome to the Sticks” — as it is about Paul and his road, Giannoli’s economical plotting allows him to explore these subjects by concentrating on just two quietly turbulent love stories. Stephane and Paul’s affair, which blooms despite the latter’s hesitation, represents those higher up in the social order, while working-class couple Monica (mono-monikered artist Soko), who becomes Paul’s secretary, and Nicolas (Vincent Rottiers), a petty criminal-turned-road worker, represent the duped masses.

Teasing out the parallels between the smaller threads and the bigger picture, Giannoli explores different gray areas. Cluzet’s portrayal of Paul as a fumbling opportunist who finds himself involved in something larger than himself, rather than as a smooth-talking evildoer, makes it easier to root for him. One wants him to get out of there before he’s discovered, even if this means leaving the one person he might really love. Depardieu, in a small but pivotal part, and Devos lend able support as more polarized characters, but it’s young Rottiers who impresses in the film’s other ambiguous role.

Though the long running time will undoubtedly limit commercial prospects, it would be hard to pinpoint any one scene that could easily go, as Giannoli’s treatment benefits from the larger, cumulative effects of editor Celia Lafitedupont’s work.

Ace d.p. Glynn Speeckaert alternates between a functional approach to the smaller human stories and more fanciful widescreen images of the construction site.

A triumphant “dance” of engineering vehicles around Paul is especially memorable, visually expressing the town’s hope for a brighter future. Cliff Martinez’s score gets the job done but is not particularly memorable; other tech credits are strong.

For the record, the whereabouts of the real-life Paul are currently unknown. The stretch of motorway he built was made in accordance with all the regulations but still had to be demolished and redone, as a person who used it could have been charged as an “accessory to fraud for profiting from the fruit of an offense.”

In the Beginning

France

Production

A EuropaCorp Distribution release of a EuropaCorp, Rectangle Prods., Studios 37, France 3 Cinema presentation and production. (International sales: EuropaCorp, Paris.) Produced by Edouard Weil, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam. Directed, written by Xavier Giannoli.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Glynn Speeckaert; editor, Celia Lafitedupont; music, Cliff Martinez; production designer, Francois-Renaud Labarthe; costume designer, Nathalie Benros; sound (Dolby Digital), Francois Musy, Gabriel Hafner; Renaud Musy; assistant director, Arnaud Esterez. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 21, 2009. Running time: 149 MIN.

With

Francois Cluzet, Emmanuelle Devos, Gerard Depardieu, Soko, Vincent Rottiers, Brice Fournier, Roch Leibovici.

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