The political thriller genre gets a very timely infusion of life with Thomas Kruithof’s debut “Scribe,” a lean, edgy drama about an outwardly bland middle-aged factotum hired to transcribe taped conversations that may or may not have been recorded by the French secret service. Set during an election clearly intended to elicit parallels with current right-wing campaigns from Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump, the film, at one time given the unwieldy English title “The Eavesdropper,” boasts an ace cast and the kind of skillfully crafted script that keeps audiences tensely guessing the outcome until the delicious “did that just happen?” denouement. The movie is likely to do strong home business on its January opening, and should be enjoyed by Francophile art houses worldwide.
When we first meet bookkeeper Duval (François Cluzet), he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown, precipitated by a nasty boss and a weakness for alcohol. Two years later he’s a teetotalling AA member, unemployed and needing a job, not just for the money but to give his life a sense of structure. After a few unsuccessful interviews, he gets a call from Mr. Clément (Denis Podalydès), proposing they meet the next day; in a spare office, Duval is offered a job transcribing phone-tapped conversations which, according to the coldly intimidating Clément, are vital to the nation’s interests.
The whole set-up is peculiar: an empty apartment has been rented, where Duval is to go every workday strictly between 9 and 6. Each morning numbered tapes will be waiting for him, which he’s to transcribe on a typewriter, not a computer, so there’s no risk of hacking. Duval protests he’s not the right person for the job, but Clément counters he’s ideal, and so he seems: older, not especially adapted to computer systems, apolitical, lives alone, and has no friends outside of AA. Besides, he needs the work, so he allows himself to think that perhaps Clément is part of French national security.
Duval develops a routine mindlessly typing out the phone conversations until he hears what seems to be the murder of a Libyan businessman acting as go-between with the government to release some French hostages. Shaken, he wants to throw in the towel, but suddenly Clément’s lackey Gerfaut (Simon Abkarian) shows up, recklessly running his mouth and literally strong-arming Duval into breaking into the offices of the Libyan’s lawyers to steal notebooks meant to contain important information. The operation is a failure, Gerfaut kills the janitor, and the next day the traumatized Duval is interrogated by Major Labarthe (Sami Bouajila) from the Secret Service.
In the manner of the best political thrillers, Duval is sucked into a nightmare of uncertain loyalties, forced to play sides against each other in a game he doesn’t understand. The mild-mannered bookkeeper with a fragile core must develop a steely quick-wittedness, especially after his AA buddy Sara (Alba Rohrwacher) is threatened. As a character, Sara is almost superfluous, patently designed to provide Duval with a slightly more developed emotional trajectory, and Rohrwacher, giving life to the weakest plot point, has little to do of any consequence.
Otherwise, the cat-and-mouse game becomes increasingly gripping as viewers put the pieces of the puzzle together one step ahead of Duval himself until the corker of an ending. In the backdrop – but not so far back – is an election campaign in which conservative candidate Philippe Chalamont touts his slogan “France is back.” Surely it’s no coincidence that the phrase has a similar ring to “Make America Great Again” (though such nativist mantras are the stock-in-trade of all right-wingers). Nor is it likely to be mere chance that the hostage situation referred to, on the eve of an election, recalls the 1979 hostage crisis when Ronald Reagan was campaigning against Jimmy Carter. One of the strengths of “Scribe” is how it plays on the notion that conspiracy theories don’t always have to be far-fetched, bringing a frightening plausibility to the film’s deadly game of manipulation.
Duval’s age is a nice detail, making the chain of events far more believable than if he were some young office worker with a drinking problem: Cluzet’s lived-in mien allows the character credibility as well as depth, wordlessly adding layers not spelled out in the tight screenplay, co-written by the director and Yann Gozlan (who delivered another enjoyable thriller last year, with “A Perfect Man”). In his first feature, Kruithof boldly exhibits a fine sense of control and a mature understanding of how to build scenes. Visuals are uniformly crisp, suitably cold when required, and matched by ace editing.