French-Canadian cinema has not traditionally been a fertile breeding ground for detective pics, which is one reason why Michel Poulette’s latest feature stands out from the Quebec film pack. “The Haven” is an odd hybrid of film noir and “Twin Peaks”-like wackiness, and Poulette — whose first pic, “Louis 19,” was a big hit in French Canada — deserves full marks for trying to do something different. But strictly as a whodunit, this policier is a murder story with more holes in it than a hunk of Swiss cheese. The French-lingo Cinepix production, which opens across Quebec at the end of September, will do decent business on home turf thanks to a high-profile launch at the Montreal fest and the presence of a slew of w.k. local stars in the cast. Internationally, it’s more likely to find a home on the small screen.
Benoit Dutrizac and Poulette’s script is simply too schizophrenic, making it difficult for the audience to know whether pic is meant to be funny or spine-tingling. Pic starts like a classic thriller, with Jacques Laniel (Serge Dupire) watching helplessly as his longtime partner, Thomas Colin (Jacques Godin), is blown away by drive-by killers. The murder throws Laniel into an existential crisis, and, still stinging from the comments of fellow cops who blame him for Colin’s death, Laniel quits the force and hangs up his shingle as a private dick. He figures his new gig will give him a better chance to hunt down Colin’s killers.
Then he stumbles across another murder. The bloodied corpse of author and lit professor Zachary Osborne (Jean-Rene Ouellet) is found strapped to the front hood of his car. Osborne’s widow, Carole (Tania Kontoyanni), soon hires Laniel to investigate the murder. He discovers that Osborne was involved in big-bucks real estate speculation and had just made a bundle of cash on the sale of a spooky rectory that had been turned into a halfway house, dubbed the Haven of the Monsters.
The building is inhabited by a gang of questionable characters, all of whom seem to harbor a large number of criminal secrets. Virtually every tenant of the Haven is a convicted murderer who’s somehow managed to get off with a light sentence. In the meantime, Detective Martineau (Raymond Cloutier) is investigating the same murder and is none too happy to see his former colleague working the case.
It’s when Laniel starts questioning the residents of the Haven that pic veers into David Lynch territory, notably with a series of flashbacks showing the strange killings committed by the tenants. Dramatic shift of tone takes the viewer by surprise, and Poulette never manages to get his pic back on the rails as an old-fashioned potboiler.
“The Haven” is a much more ambitious offering than “Louis 19,” but it lacks earlier pic’s disarming charm. As with many thrillers, this one unravels in thefinal reel, when the pieces of the puzzle are put together. Finale is particularly unconvincing.
Heading an uneven cast, lead Dupire lends little dramatic presence to his role. Many of the thesps — notably Macha Grenon as Laniel’s wife, Godin as his partner and Monique Spaziani as Colin’s widow — suffer with thinly written parts. Some supporting players fare better, with memorable turns by Isabel Richer, David La Haye and JiCi Lauzon, the latter oozing sleaziness in his small part as an unhinged BMW salesman.
Poulette and lenser Yves Belanger make good use of nighttime settings to set noir tone, and the central building creates a haunting mood of its own.