Hailed by Variety as “a timely political thriller told with edgy flair,” “The Eavesdropper” (aka “Scribe”) begins with Duval (François Cluzet), an accountant, being told by his boss that he needs to present a report the following morning. Duval smiles meekly, says he will get the work done, stays up all night at the office, begins to drink, and has a nervous breakdown. Two years later, he’s out of work, spends his time doing jigsaw puzzles, attends AA.
In the early stretches of “The Eavesdropper,” Cluzet plays a mild-mannered bookkeeper who’s punctual, obsessive-compulsive, and just needs a job to give his life order, as he confesses at AA. Cluzet builds up so much empathy with the spectator that when he’s offered employment transcribing phone conversations for a covert surveillance organization and is trapped in its machinations and murders, the spectator is utterly caught up, too.
With a lean narrative made on what one suspects is a lean budget, “The Eavesdropper” is directed by Thomas Kruithof, a first-time feature director who elicits strong performances from Cluzet and other players and is in control of his craft, knowing what he is doing and why, as a brief interview with him suggests. “The Eavesdropper” is not the only freshman thriller screening at this week’s UniFrance Rendez-Vous to boast such qualities. Together, the films suggest that genre, especially crime thrillers, is making a comeback in France, and promises one of the viewing pleasures for distributors at this year’s market.
Variety talked to Kruithof just before “The Eavesdropper” opens in France on Thursday.
“The Eavesdropper” is a thriller hinging on political espionage. What attracted you to this subject?
My starting point is to direct a spy thriller which takes the viewpoint of a guy at the bottom of a secret organization where each agent knows as much as he needs to do his job but nothing else. I thought I could make an exciting film. I have always been very fond of stories about an individual fighting a system. In movies and everything, newspapers articles, it’s something that touches something inside me.
“The Eavesdropper” unspools in the buildup to presidential elections, with Paris plastered by posters of the far right front-runner. The sinister head of a covert surveillance operation, Clément, claims to act in “France’s interests” as a “patriot.” After Brexit, Donald Trump’s victory and now the buildup to French presidential elections in spring where a far-right candidate is pushing a nationalist agenda, I wonder if you could comment on your film’s timeliness.
The movie is kind of topical. But I didn’t make it to be released during the electoral campaign in France. When you write, you don’t know when a film will be released. The plot of my film is inspired by the many Secret Service stories or conspiracy accounts that we have had in France over the last 30 years….The other thing is this sensation of massive surveillance. I assumed that a secret organization would try to get back to analog technology to protect themselves from hacking and piracy and that has proved to be the case. When the Snowden case exploded, we learned that Russia’s FSB had bought typing machines so that governments could keep valuable documents only in a paper format.
Every single scene in “The Eavesdropper” seems aimed at adding something to Duval’s nightmarish position, either in emotional or practical terms. The actual process of Duval’s incrimination in the secret organization’s crimes is really quite clear, however, which makes it even scarier.
Yes, I don’t think the story, in the final count, is so complex, but Duval’s knowledge about what is going on is so restricted that it feels complex. I was careful with the way we supplied the main character with information. It’s the kind of movie where the viewer, like the protagonist, is asking themselves questions: “Is this by chance? Is it related to the plot or not?” Then suddenly, after 30-45 minutes, you realize everything is there for a reason. But Duval, and the viewer with him, has to join the dots, assemble the different pieces of information to understand the conspiracy. I wanted to have the feeling of paranoia to grow progressively throughout the film.
Did you always write with the idea of casting Cluzet, and why choose him?
When writing, I would step back and think who could play the character. I always came back to François as one of my favorite actors. But I couldn’t say to myself that it had to be François because what were the chances that I’d get him for your film? But I needed an actor who plays a character who doesn’t speak much, who restrains himself, but conveys what his character is thinking. François has a real talent for doing this subtly. It’s partly his body language but also his face, even the way he breathes, and especially his eyes. Also I knew he would add extra layers of humanity. And working from a great actor, you gain time, you can be faster saying what you want to say. François gave such depth to small scenes that I didn’t need additional scenes.
Could you talk about the cinematography, which incorporates a sense of film noir?
First, with the film’s cinematographer Alex Lamarque, we are always with this character so there is a subjectivity to the way we shot. I wanted the film, like ’40s film noirs, to use up-shots filmed from below and to shift progressively towards a noir style, as a journey through the night, through shadows, for the last 30 minutes to get closer and closer to black and white. We also had the idea of progressively emptying the sets and with the image to give a sense of being lost in a labyrinth. I was inspired by some of Gordon Willis’s work, where you have frames within the frame. I also wanted to insist on some kind of loneliness, to have Cluzet in the middle of the shot with an empty space on both sides of him.
The film is also about power and submission, and that emerges from your use of reverse shots.
Yes, the other thing important to me, even if it doesn’t look like an artistic choice, is the way we shot conversations in an asymmetrical way. In the first interview with Clément, played by Denis Podalydès, Clément look straight towards the camera and we don’t see Cluzet. I wanted the spectator to feel that they are being scrutinized by Denis’s character, just as Duval is. In the reverse shot of Cluzet, Podalydès is in the frame. The inclusion in shot of Denis’ back serves to make François seem to be cornered, to have his back against the wall, almost literally. “The Eavesdropper” is about confrontation, so as Cluzet becomes stronger, the shot-reverse shot setups becomes more symmetrical.
Do you think that France is seeing some kind of comeback in genre? Especially crime thrillers from a younger generation of filmmakers.
I think so. I would not only speak about crime thrillers. This last year there’s been Alice Winocour’s “Disorder,” Arthur Harari’s “Dark Diamond” and Julia Ducournau’s “Raw.” There are great young filmmakers with strong visions and vigorous takes on genre.