Amodern fable about the perils of the psychiatrist’s couch for both analyst and analysand, “Death in Therapy” delivers a comfortably improbable story that would make any paranoid proud. Veteran Gallic helmer Francis Girod has crafted a decidedly old-fashioned thriller about one man’s descent into danger that leaves no loose end untied and no significant silence unexplained. On the strength of its excellent cast and its tight, if long in coming, succession of plot twists, pic should fare respectably in European and arthouse venues, before going on to a cable career.
Adapted from Jean-Pierre Gattegno’s 1992 novel “Neutralite Malveillante” (roughly, “Malevolent Neutrality”), “Therapy” stands squarely in the sturdy Gallic tradition of modest-budget mystery. The cops smoke too much, the sex is fast, and whatever happens, happens at night. The rules of the genre are rigorously respected: Pic even opens with a funeral and ends with a wedding.
Antoine Riviere (Daniel Auteuil) is a smugly successful society shrink and respected author given to sordid quickies with his publishing house publicist and his favorite fetching colleague (Marianne Denicourt). Riviere’s patients matter little to him, except as sources of income to cover his overdrafts and child-support payments.
There are, however, two space cases who breach the wall of his cultivated indifference. Isabelle d’Archambault (Anne Parillaud), an old-money heiress whose slinky squirmings on Riviere’s couch show that transference is well under way, tantalizes the phlegmatic doctor with her intimations of easy intimacy and even easier wealth. The other troubling visitor is Edouard Berg (Patrick Timsit) , a compulsively natty gentleman of leisure whose graphic descriptions of how he killed his wife seem, at first, to be the delusional ravings of a self-important nut.
But Berg’s confession grows ever more frightening as Riviere, at his irritating patient’s insistence, begins to investigate the circumstances surrounding Mrs. Berg’sdisappearance. He is soon torn between reporting the matter to the police, throwing Berg out of his practice, and seeing his investigation through to the bitter end. By choosing the last option, Riviere realizes that he has been manipulated all along by the diabolically clever Berg.
As usual, Auteuil excels in portraying an understated character of considerable complexity. His perf as an imperturbable Gallic shrink realistically combines Parisian professional arrogance with a wavering moral compass. Parillaud (the original “Nikita”) successfully maintains a facade of screwy patrician neurosis throughout the pic, although she is given little else to do than writhe winningly in the doctor’s office.
More problematic is the Berg character. Timsit, an immensely likable comic actor who last scored internationally as an outrageous gay banker in French B.O. giant “What a Drag,” has been directed to exhibit a distressing number of nervous tics that detract from the articulate malevolence inhabiting Berg. The succession of overlong playlets that are his encounters with Riviere is at times undermined by the need to keep his character alive and fidgeting.
Aside from the occasional laughable lapse in verisimilitude — an unnoticed bonfire on a front lawn in a ritzy Parisian suburb, for example — “Death in Therapy” delivers on its promise of well-manicured menace. Tech credits are excellent. As evocatively shot by Charlie van Damme, Paris is a somber blue city of lethal coincidence, and helmer Girod’s package of shrink-wrapped intrigue is thoughtfully presented. While no “House of Games,” pic offers an appealing glimpse into the pitfalls of psychoanalytical pride.