Charting similar ground to last year’s far more effective “Human Resources” by Laurent Cantet, “According to Matthieu” is a solemnly self-important exercise, from its Gospel title to its thundering High Mass soundtrack. As a story of class conflict, Xavier Beauvois’ third feature starts promisingly, with the same imposing austerity that has characterized many recent dramas set in France’s industrial north. But the script degenerates into an implausible tale of misguided revenge, made all the more facile by the Gallic director’s mannered approach. Commercial outlook beyond festivals appears limited.
Like “Human Resources,” the film centers on a family of factory workers, this time in a small Normandy town, and the devastation that ensues when the father (Fred Ulysse) loses his job over a minor infraction. His youngest son, Matthieu (Benoit Magimel), tries to stir his brother, Eric (Antoine Chappey) — they work in the same factory — into action to fight the decision, but the latter is newly married and refuses to rock the boat with his employers. Matthieu’s efforts to involve other workers also fail and his campaign for his father’s reinstatement falls on deaf ears.
When his father is killed while crossing a road en route to sign on for unemployment benefits, Matthieu is convinced his despair drove him to suicide. He sees an avenue for revenge in well-heeled, lonely gambler Claire (Nathalie Baye), revealed well into the action to be the wife of the factory boss. Passing himself off as a middle-class professional, he repeatedly throws himself in her path at the local casino, and a torrid affair soon begins. But when she discovers the truth, Claire swiftly truncates the relationship, prompting him to expose her in a move that backfires disastrously.
The script by Beauvois, Cedric Anger and writer-director Catherine Breillat (“Romance”) feels over-intellectualized but psychologically half-baked, lacking the unpredictable rawness that gave the director’s first and possibly best film, “Nord,” such a corrosive edge. While the slow setup is well handled, confidently reeling the audience in, the tension is compromised by a more banal second act and a perfunctory, unsatisfying conclusion.
Playing a cold, aloof character, Baye is elegantly unsympathetic, her pragmatic dialogue about the expendable nature of workers serving rather forcibly to hammer the script’s points on the harsh realities of the world. The drama’s finest element is Magimel’s brooding, intense performance, with his complex, somewhat unresolved character providing some intrigue as Matthieu’s plans for vendetta are derailed by conflicting passions, leaving him trapped and helpless and ultimately doing the greatest damage to himself and his family.
Handsomely produced pic makes effective use of the wintry coastal locations and heavy, cloud-laden skies, atmospherically captured in Caroline Champetier’s widescreen lensing.