The disadvantages of robbing Peter to pay Paul are explored with restraint in “The Adversary.” Drawing on the same bizarre and tragic true story as Laurent Cantet’s “Time Out” (“L’Emploi du temps”), thesp-turned-helmer Nicole Garcia’s fourth feature is a fictionalized account of what might have made unlikely murderer Jean-Claude Romand tick. Carefully made but slightly oblique pic will find its audience in French-speaking countries and on the fest circuit but, despite fascinating basic premise, measured treatment and downbeat material could render wide export slightly more problematic.
Daniel Auteuil delivers a frighteningly contained perf as Jean-Marc Faure, inspired by Romand, who for 18 years convinced his family and friends that he was a physician employed by the World Health Organization in Geneva when, in fact, he had zero professional qualifications and had never held a job. By living on the large sums he pretended to invest for intimates, Romand hoodwinked his entourage for nearly two decades and, on the brink of being found out, preferred to murder his wife, his children and his parents rather than face the shame of being exposed as a fraud.
Incident made headlines in early 1993 and is the subject of a widely-read book by Emmanuel Carrere, meaning many viewers will enter the theater knowing how the story ends — which is, in fact, roughly where the movie begins, although that, like much else that transpires in pic is so subtle and understated as to be potentially perplexing.
The date Jan. 10, 1993, sets the scene as Faure, wearing a suit with dried mud on one shoulder, lets himself into his stylish modern house and calls for his wife Christine (Geraldine Pailhas) but receives no answer. A mysterious figure in a ski mask is then seen trudging through the snow, at an unspecified moment in time. Noticing a shattered cereal bowl at his feet, Faure cleans up the mess, closes the shutters in the eerily still bedroom where his son and daughter fail to stir and prepares himself coffee. As he sips, the first of many flashbacks begins.
Faure and his family live in a small community in France but he commutes by car to Switzerland. It’s demonstrated early on that while Faure knows his way around WHO headquarters, he has no specific task to perform there. A scene in a bank indicates that Faure has a massive overdraft but the management — convinced he’s a hotshot doctor — assumes he’s good for it.
Despite leisurely running time, so much is left unexpressed about Faure that had the gist of events depicted not really happened, viewers would be hard-pressed to believe anyone could pull off such a massive charade for so long.
As much as Catherine Deneuve delectably chewed the scenery in Garcia’s previous film, “Place Vendome,” here Auteuil doesn’t even come close to snacking on his surroundings. In his calm and methodical portrayal of a shy character under never-ending stress, Auteuil convinces as a guy who’s made his own bed and must lie, fabulate and prevaricate in it. The extent to which his actions are clear or muddled in his own mind isn’t evident until final stretch.
Lensing favors a clean look bred of clear air and rarefied living, which contrasts smartly with the morose underpinnings of Faure’s every gesture and suspicion-deflecting reply. Film is pregnant with unease, a mood that is greatly enhanced by Angelo Badalamenti’s score.