When a pop singer bashes his g.f.’s head in by accident, he turns to his most devoted groupie to help clean up the mess in “Number One Fan,” an exceptionally well-polished French thriller that seems less invested in whatever suspense that scenario might hold than in its characters and the darkly satirical undercurrent that runs beneath. Starring 2014 Cesar winner Sandrine Kiberlain (nominated again for this perf) as the not-all-there beautician who would do anything for her idol (played by Laurent Lafitte), this solid mainstream offering keeps you guessing while taking full advantage of its two stars’ acting abilities. Not quite arty enough for export, the Hollywood-slick pic would nevertheless play well to American auds, for whom it would make a nice Friday-night streaming option.
Though it looks and feels like the work of an accomplished helmer with half a dozen credits under his belt, the film’s biggest twist is its provenance: “Number One Fan” actually marks the directorial debut of Jeanne Herry, daughter of Miou-Miou and Julien Clerc, a vintage pop star whose suave persona and toothy grin are clearly reflected in Herry’s choice of Lafitte. On loan from the Comedie Francaise, stage actor Lafitte embodies Vincent Lacroix as precisely the sort of laid-back crooner who reigned when Clerc’s career was at its height.
By contrast, Kiberlain’s character, Muriel, has a perpetually adolescent quality, as if her life may have peaked in junior high. A couple of decades later, she still holds a schoolgirl crush, spending night after night in the front row of Vincent’s concerts, then lingering backstage afterward hoping for a glimpse of her idol, before coming home to a room plastered with posters and other Vincent-related paraphernalia. Though the character is a serial exaggerator (which makes it easy for her to lie under police interrogation, yet difficult for anyone to believe her when she tells the truth), to Kiberlain’s enormous credit, Muriel comes across as neither crazy nor creepy.
Growing up, Herry must have seen her share of obsessives, and yet she studiously avoids the cliche of a fan whose passion poses a threat to the star. Rather, Muriel’s devotion makes her vulnerable: When Vincent shows up at her door one night, she’s overwhelmed by his sudden attention and can’t help but go along with anything he asks — which, in this case, would be to drive the corpse of his much younger g.f. across the border, while he spends the evening inventing an alibi.
Compared to Muriel, Vincent proves a much more difficult character to like, and one of the film’s challenges comes in deciding whether to root for him to succeed (the murder may have been an honest accident, but every subsequent decision makes him a heel). Meanwhile, Herry and co-writer Gaelle Mace (whose collaborations have resulted in some of the strongest French screenplays in recent memory) entirely reject the stock detective characters we’d expect to find in such a film, introducing the notion that the cops are so distracted with their own personal indiscretions that this side drama manages to overwhelm their investigation.
Between its playful manipulation of audience expectations and the almost insouciant way it toys with the notion of guilt, “Number One Fan” would have tickled the likes of Alfred Hitchcock to no end. Herry doesn’t imitate the master, as so many other directors have, but confidently pursues her own priorities, and in so doing, uncovers a sort of dignity in a character who so easily might have seemed pathetic. Although wildly implausible in places and a bit too pat in the end, no doubt owing to Herry’s inexperience, the film boasts stellar production values and will surely earn the helmer a following in her own right.