To quote “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.” Mathieu Vasseur, the panicked impostor at the center of the frequently preposterous French thriller “Un homme ideal,” might as well have written that line himself. As hacky aspiring novelists go, he’s far more adept at quoting the words of others, and the same could be said for co-writer-director Yann Gozlan, who recycles story elements from “The Words” and others, playing the scenario for suspense rather than psychology in a film whose success will depend on how much audiences like to see Pierre Niney squirm.
Stage actor Niney used to be something of a nobody himself, until the fashion-world biopic “Yves Saint Laurent” launched his screen career. Now a rising star, Niney convincingly slips back into the skin of an insecure outsider: a lowly janitor whose only real ambition is to become a respected author. (Apart from “Sex and the City’s” Carrie Bradshaw, are writers’ lives really so glamorous that people covet them? Then again, it beats emptying garbage cans.) Cleaning up at a local college, Mathieu eavesdrops on a lecture by pretty young lit scholar Alice Fursac (Ana Girardot), daydreaming how it would feel to have his artistic intentions analyzed in this way.
To his credit, Mathieu has made it far closer to his goals than many who call themselves writers. He’s actually written a book, although the publishing houses won’t even do him the courtesy of explaining why they rejected it. Lucky for him, Mathieu possesses at least one of the qualities of a great novelist: He has sufficient imagination to take another writer’s manuscript, pass it off as his own and invent a backstory plausible enough for the world to believe that he was the book’s true author. Luckier still, said manuscript happens to be the diary of a French soldier who fought in Algeria, now dead, so no one should be showing up to claim it anytime soon. (The journal begins tersely, “This morning, I killed a man,” a compelling twist on one of the most famous opening lines in French literature, that of Albert Camus’ “The Stranger.”) This time, after Mathieu retypes the diary and submits it as an original work of fiction, the publishers are quick to return his calls — and so is Alice.
From there, “Un homme ideal” jumps forward three years. Mathieu and Alice are now a couple. The book, “Black Sand,” is not only a hit, but a big-time prizewinner. And yet it seems there was an expiration date on the young man’s “happily ever after” after all. Mathieu’s creditors are calling; one of the dead soldier’s old comrades is trying to blackmail him; and the publisher is getting impatient about Mathieu’s next novel, demanding that he return their over-generous advance.
Just like that, it seems the script (which incredibly took three writers to pull together) has conveniently skipped over the tricky details, rejoining Mathieu as he attempts to maintain his shaky facade. For those willing to cut the poor sop some slack, his earlier deception was a victimless crime, but now, in deep and unable to write a word, he finds himself resorting to robbery, murder and, perhaps most unforgivably, gross violations of plausibility.
Since Alice’s parents are extravagantly wealthy, entertaining their “self-made” future son-in-law at their seaside villa on the French Riviera, this portion of the film feels like a direct rip-off of “Ripley” and “Purple Noon” (right down to Thibault Vincon as the Freddie Miles-like family friend whose suspicions have consequences) — to say nothing of movies whose plots it plagiarizes, like the German sham-writer con game “Lila, Lila” and Gallic stolen-identity thriller “The Big Picture.” Still, it was the French who gave us the word “homage” to describe such behavior, and in that esteemed tradition, Gozlan steals his style, delivering a slick divertissement, elegantly lensed to make its well-bred world look as enticing as possible, and tensely scored (with what sounds like generic temp music) to suggest it could all slip away in an instant.
At a certain point, Mathieu’s situation gets so complicated, it probably would have been easier for him just to write his own book — which at one point, he actually does, tipping the film into sheer ludicrousness. “Un homme ideal” isn’t terribly convincing on any level, but at least it manages to make its nervous antihero sweat, and there’s a certain sadistic pleasure in watching the pressure mount for Niney, who positively excels at looking anxious. Had the writers bothered to supply his character with a proper personality, as opposed to merely being driven by the all-consuming fear of discovery, the thrill might have gone even deeper — where we actually like or identify with Mathieu, and actually want him to get away with it. Alas, that would be an ideal situation, whereas this one’s merely adequate.