The backstory that partly reveals why an investment banker suddenly kills several colleagues is unfurled in elliptical Gallic drama “Early One Morning,” helmer Jean-Marc Moutout’s latest look at contempo professionals in crisis. As in his earlier “Work Hard, Play Hard,” Moutout illuminates the high cost of capitalism through the prism of individuals coping with intense career pressures. Jean-Pierre Darroussin’s moving yet subtle lead perf reps the pic’s biggest bonus, but the story’s downbeat trajectory and overly fragmentary storytelling might explain why it’s had only a smallish release in Gaul, earning a respectable but modest $717,000 or so since Oct. 5.
Per the helmer in the pic’s production notes, the script he co-wrote with Olivier Gorce and Sophie Fillieres was inspired by a real-life news story concerning a fiftysomething banker in Switzerland who suddenly walked into his office one Monday morning and shot two of his younger superiors dead. Pic doesn’t carry any “based on true events” tag, but instead invents its own version of how someone so seemingly respectable might crack and resort to such violence.
Protag here is Paul Wertret (Darroussin), first seen brushing his teeth, kissing his sleeping wife, Francoise (Valerie Dreville), goodbye, and setting off for work with a loaded gun in his briefcase. At the glassy modern offices of BICF, his (fictional) bank in an unnamed city, Paul shoots two men who were, we learn later, his boss, Alain Fisher (thesp-helmer Xavier Beauvois), and younger manager, Fabrice Van Listeich (Yannick Renier). Paul then quietly goes to sit down at his own desk with his gun while his remaining colleagues scatter in panic.
Thereafter, asynchronous flashbacks from Paul’s life go some way — but, seemingly deliberately, not all the way — toward explaining how he got to this point. The short answer is that he grew to hate aggressive, manipulative Alain and weaselly, backstabbing Fabrice when they sidelined Paul at the bank, and used research he did to justify laying off a colleague he liked, Clarisse (Nelly Antignac), when the world financial crisis forced the bank to make cutbacks.
The more complete answer lies deeper, partly in his once-rocky marriage with Francoise, and partly in his own sense of guilt for having once been just as ruthless to succeed whatever the cost. Scenes showing Paul talking to a therapist (Frederic Leidgens) some months before the killing uncover a man who excessively compartmentalizes his life and is arrogantly sure of his own judgment yet estranged from his own feelings. In short, he was the perfect banker, and the system that made him is now breaking him.
In a typically humanist move that’s meant to show Paul’s moral complexity, Moutout writes in a sketchy subplot about how he and Francoise took a gap year to do volunteer work in Mali and now sponsor a Malian teen, Youssef (Ralph Amoussou) who’s about the same age as their own son, Benoit (Laurent Delbecque). But the strand isn’t quite satisfyingly meshed into the main story, and in the end, there’s the sense that the viewer learns a lot of the details but can never quite see the bigger picture.
That very well might be intentional, an attempt to suggest through jagged editing and oblique storytelling how we can learn so much about one man’s life and yet know him so little. However, the final effect is rather distancing, and leaves “Early One Morning” feeling a bit emotionally inert. Darroussin’s contained, simmering perf rectifies this somewhat, but it’s not quite enough.