A prison meller that’s solidly entertaining, if lacking any truly fresh genre wrinkles, Alain Robak’s “La taule” (billed at Montreal as “Jail,” but translated onscreen in more colloquial terms as “The Slammer”)paces its confines with confidence and considerable humor, faltering only in the last lap — when it becomes clear the script’s core threads have gone underdeveloped amid so many colorful subsidiary characters. Pic also errs with a close that’s bafflingly out of synch with everything that’s gone before. A bit too escapist for wide arthouse export, feature should do decent biz in French-language markets, with topliner Olivier Martinez’s appeal further powering cassette and TV sales.
Thesp’s serene handsomeness is well deployed as the Mute, an inmate whose inability — or perhaps unwillingness — to speak (he’s not deaf) stonewalls the authorities when it becomes clear his cellmate escaped during the night. The glowering Chief Guard (vet thesp Claude Brasseur) tries to batter a confession out of the Mute, but is stopped by the urbane Warden (Bernard Le Coq), who prefers using his own crafty powers of deduction.
The Mute is moved into a new cell shared with four other prisoners, including some “fresh meat” — a terrified white-collar man (Said Taghmaoui, from “La haine” and “Hideous Kinky”) who insists he’s been wrongly imprisoned, and who nearly cracks under the harsh environment’s pressures. His computer skills prove useful when the Chief Guard cuts off TV transmission, hoping to enrage the populace against a still-uncooperative Mute. Meanwhile, an arrogant police detective (Gilbert Melki) carries on his own investigation of the escape, with no help from the resentful prison staff.
Subsidiary jailbird characters run a vivid gamut, from an aging bodybuilder to the de rigueur flaming queen and a lunatic who never stops singing pop songs; there’s also a transvestite segregated to the solitary-confinement “hole,” where the Chief pays him regular, secret amorous visits.
Despite his imminent retirement, the Chief remains iron-willed and obsessed with breaking the Mute’s cool resistance. An ill-timed visit from prison inspectors reveals just how close to chaos this institution skates. Sequence also suddenly reveals — by digressing at overly jokey length — that hitherto tightly woven pic has a bad case of third-act willies.
Though Martinez is well matched to his role’s enigmatic nature, in the long run the script banks too much on it — there’s no explanation as to why the Mute’s cellmate escaped, or why he himself stayed behind. Result leaves both character and narrative as ciphers, denying full emotional payoff. Also underdeveloped is central cat-and-mouse dynamic with the Chief, who needs to be more detestable for his final comeuppance to carry desired impact. In any case, their climactic death struggle during a riot confounds by taking an ill-conceived, fanciful visual leap; helmer Robak (“Irena et les ombes,” “Baby Blood”) follows this with a yet more incongruous closing flourish of lyrical absurdism.
This balmy wrap doesn’t ruin “La taule’s” earlier pleasures, but pic would benefit from a re-edit bringing the tag more in line with story’s overall droll-but-tough tone.
First-rate cast plays its archetypal roles with zest; amid other pro tech contributions, Bernard Dechet’s widescreen lensing and Elisabeth Moulinier’s pacey editing help make this one of the least oppressive prison pics in recent memory.