Atmospheric account of a cover-up of a fatal accident, involving a hotel owner and the titular employee who might have seen something, is pleasingly heavy on shades of gray.

The second feature from scribe-helmer Raphael Jacoulot (“Barrage”), “The Night Clerk” is the kind of French drama that uses a crime not as its subject, but as a starting point for an exploration of the characters that committed or witnessed it. Set in the wintry Pyrenees, this atmospheric account of a cover-up of a fatal accident, involving a hotel owner and the titular employee who might have seen something, is pleasingly heavy on shades of gray. March 2 release posted solid opening numbers for a Gallic indie rollout, and will work nights at fests and Francophone showcases.

After Frederic (Vincent Rottiers) has been released from jail, he starts working as a temporary nighttime receptionist at a cavernous mountain hotel run by stolid pere de famille Jacques (Jean-Pierre Bacri). Jacques doesn’t care about Frederic’s past as long as he does his job, and though the ex-con is initially rather clueless, he’s grateful for the chance he’s been given.

The strictly professional relationship of the two men grows more complicated after Jacques’ adult son, Paul (Francois Perrot), has a car accident during a snowstorm that causes the death of one of their guests. Pragmatic Jacques helps Paul cover his tracks, though he quickly realizes that Frederic might have seen something.

The film’s midsection is its strongest part overall, thanks to the ambiguity that informs Jacques and Frederic’s rapport after the accident. Uncertain if he’s dealing with a potential witness, Jacques initially decides to warm to his aloof young employee, who unexpectedly blooms under Jacques’ tutelage. Paul and his dad have never gotten along, and the buddy behavior between Jacques and Frederic causes further friction between father and son, especially since Jacques clearly blames Paul for the accident. But the constant fear of discovery slowly starts to poison Jacques’ relationships with both men, especially after a colorfully dressed but hard-nosed cop from out of town (Sylvie Testud) takes over the case from the local policemen who are Jacques’ buddies.

Most famous Stateside for his work as a scribe-thesp in the talky eviscerations of Gallic bourgeois life directed by Agnes Jaoui (“Look at Me,” “Let It Rain”), Bacri here neatly fills the shoes of the pragmatic and stern paterfamilias whose behavior becomes increasingly erratic as he paints himself into a corner.

But the scene-stealer is Rottiers. His expressive face, which expertly conveys the simple burden of being a lower-class outcast, is a mug that could have been discovered by the Dardenne brothers (instead, his earlier work include major roles in “Silent Voices” and “In the Beginning”). Rottiers nails Frederic’s quiet determination and growing doubts as he simply and honestly tries to rebuild a life with his g.f. (newcomer India Hair, impressive), facing obstacles with a personal honesty that’s more informed by gut feeling than by experience. Supporting cast, led by the always reliable Testud, is solid from top to bottom.

The hotel where the pic is set is almost a character in its own right, only slightly less imposing than the Bates Motel or”The Shining’s” Overlook. The production design and Andre Dziezuk’s swirling score, inspired by the classics, give “The Night Clerk” slightly gothic overtones without sacrificing any of its realism. Lensing by Benoit Chamaillard overdoes the traveling shots of the winding mountain roads, but otherwise complements the overall look and feel.

Original title translates as the more poetic and ominous “Before the Dawn.”

The Night Clerk

France-Luxembourg

Production

An UGC Distribution (in France)/Iris Distribution (in Luxembourg) release of a Mon Voisin Prods., Iris Prods. presentation and production, in association with TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, UGC Images, France 3 Cinema, with participation of Canal Plus, France 3, Cinecinema, Canal Plus Afrique. (International sales: TF1 Intl., Paris.) Produced by Dominique Besnehard, Michel Feller. Co-producer, Nicolas Steil. Directed by Raphael Jacoulot. Screenplay, Lise Macheboeuf, Jacoulot.

Crew

Camera (color, 35mm-to-HD), Benoit Chamaillard; editor, Mirjam Strugalla; music, Andre Dziezuk; production designer, Denis Renault; costume designer, Judy Shrewsbury; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Carlo Thoss; assistant director, Delphine Daull; casting, Christel Baras. Reviewed at Utopolis, Luxembourg, March 4, 2011. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Jean-Pierre Bacri, Vincent Rottiers, Ludmila Mikael, Sylvie Testud, Celine Sallette, Francois Perrot, Xavier Robic, India Hair, Pierre-Felix Graviere. (French dialogue)

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