This review was corrected on June 13, 2003.
An arrogant detective, a jovial investigating magistrate and an enterprising young newspaper reporter compete to solve a locked-room whodunit in “The Mystery of the Yellow Room.” Set in the early 1900s, this latest adaptation of writer Gaston Leroux’s oft-filmed novel sports a marvelous cast and outstanding production design, but will feel interminable to some despite the fact there’s always something going on. Helmer Bruno Podalydes’ films to date — off-kilter meditations on the contretemps of modern life starring his brother Denis — have always found an audience in Gaul. Fests should investigate, keeping in mind the older the demographic the more likely auds are to appreciate this genuinely suspenseful if lengthy and talky romp.
Pic, which is dedicated to veteran director Alain Resnais and employs many of his stock players, is a proud throwback to the pleasures of pure deductive reasoning, before DNA testing and ballistic spectrometry came along. Best-known earlier version of the yarn — also filmed in 1912 by Maurice Tourneur and 1948 by Henri Aisner — is helmer Marcel L’Herbier’s 1930 talkie.
At a turreted chateau in the verdant countryside, Mathilde (Sabine Azema), the daughter of elderly inventor Prof. Stangerson (Michael Lonsdale), said goodnight to her father and his assistant, Jacques (Julos Beaucarne), shortly after midnight. Retiring to the yellow-walled bedroom adjoining the prof’s lab, she double-locked the door. A scream and two shots were then heard.
The concierge (Dominique Parent) and his wife (Isabelle Candelier) came running, fully dressed. The locked door was forced open to reveal Mathilde unconscious on the floor with blood flowing from a head wound. A bloody red handprint adorned one wall. But the door was locked, the shutters were closed, there are iron bars on the window and no chimney. So how did the assassin escape?
Assembled to solve the conundrum are Judge Marquet (Claude Rich) and his legal aid (Scali Delpeyrat); famed investigator Inspector Larsan (Pierre Arditi) and four assistants; and intrepid newsman Joseph Rouletabille (Denis Podalydes) in the company of his photographer, Sainclair (Jean-Noel Broute).
Larsan suspects Mathilde’s fiance, Robert Darzac (Olivier Gourmet), but Rouletabille believes Darzac’s dismay to be sincere. An American Indian gamekeeper (George Aguilar) with an impressive collection of firearms rounds out the ensemble cast.
As Mathilde hovers between life and death, various strange behavior and odd developments emerge at an orderly clip. Only viewers who have read the novel or seen previous pic versions are likely to figure out what really happened before the exposition-heavy closing reel.
Although it moves forward with aplomb, narrative may feel overlong for some auds simply because it is a completely old-fashioned undertaking, attuned to a simpler but no less mischievous era. Movie is full of humor but not played for laughs in the manner of, say, the Indiana Jones pictures that pay tribute to the matinee serials of yore. Pleasures that film offers are those of the Late Late Show — decked out in color and beautifully composed widescreen.
Philippe Sarde’s sparely used score ranges from the agreeably sinister, pregnant with malice, to the pastoral and jaunty. Amidst meaningful props and copious red herrings, the prof’s Rube Goldberg-like gizmos and gadgets are terrific.