Agatha Christie fans — and anyone who likes an old-fashioned whodunit, blithely played — will come away clucking from “Towards Zero,” Gallic helmer Pascal Thomas’ second stab at the Queen of Crime’s oeuvre. Pic has the same low-key retro fun as his 2005 local hit, “By the Pricking of My Thumbs,” and while thoroughly French, remains very faithful to the spirit of Christie, an author Thomas reveres alongside Balzac and Simenon. Though the film is technically very ordinary, ensemble playing of veterans and young ‘uns gives it bounce. In France, “Zero” bows Oct. 31.
As well as assembling the same tech crew, including co-scripters Francois Caviglioli and Nathalie Lafaurie, Thomas has again steered clear of adapting any of the better-known Christie novels featuring Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. Where “Thumbs” followed sporty amateur investigators Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, “Zero” is one of the few Christies in which Superintendent Battle (here renamed Bataille) is the crimebuster. By choosing novels with no well-known screen antecedents, Thomas gives his workan extra sense of freshness.
Story starts with a social gathering of legal mavens who discuss the finer points of their profession like vintage wine. The veteran among them, Judge Trevoz (Jacques Sereys), points out how a crime is actually not the beginning of the mystery but the culminating moment (“zero hour”), in which a string of predestined events finally come together and a murder is committed.
Post-titles, two seemingly unconnected events take place. A guy (Herve Pierre) tries to commit suicide by jumping off a cliff, but survives; and Superintendent Bataille (Francois Morel) is called to the school of his youngest daughter (Camille Balsan), who’s been accused of petty theft.
Story proper gets under way at a clifftop manse overlooking a bay-cum-estuary in northern France. Quite apart from the topography, the old-style building and its privileged denizens have a retro feel that could just as easily be ’30s or ’40s Blighty; as the mystery progresses, composer Reinhardt Wagner’s creepy-crawly score recalls any number of crime serials of the era.
In true Christie style, an extended family is gathering for a reunion that has “combustible” written all over it. Manse is owned by dowager aunt Camilla Tresillian (vet Danielle Darrieux, visibly relishing the role), whose demands have been patiently served for 20 years by professional companion Marie-Adeline (Alessandra Martines) and sour personal maid Barrette (Carmen Durand). Chief guest is Camilla’s free-spending nephew, Guillaume (Melvil Poupaud), and his second wife, Caroline (Laura Smet). Much to Caroline’s anguish, Guillaume’s first wife, unnaturally calm Aude (Chiara Mastroianni), arrives for the gathering.
Also joining the group is world traveler Thomas Rondeau (Clement Thomas, the helmer’s son), who has always loved Aude, plus smoothie Fred Latimer (Xavier Thiam), who’s always had the hots for Caroline. Quite a few of Camilla’s guests, and notably Caroline, are simply waiting for the ornery old broad to drop dead so they can inherit.
Much of the initial fascination comes from waiting to see who will be the murder victim. A rogue element is introduced when Trevoz, an old friend of Camilla’s, is invited to dinner. He turns out to be the first victim of an immaculately planned double murder in which all the evidence initially fingers Guillaume. Finally, Bataille, who’s on holiday in the region, turns up with his nephew, a local cop, to solve the mystery.
Casting is tip-top, with Smet having a ball as the highly strung (and sexed) Caroline, Poupaud all charm as the wastrel Guillaume and even small roles, such as dotty maid Emma (Valeriane de Villeneuve), adding to the sense of fun. Morel is hardly the plodding Superintendent Battle of Christie’s books, but his offhand style fits well with the pic’s general tone.
As in “Thumbs,” Renan Polles’ lensing is very average and not especially well lit, though it doesn’t get in the way of the characters and plot-driven story.