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The Great Alibi

Nobody's innocent in "The Great Alibi," a highly chatty, highly French whodunit from veteran writer and Jacques Rivette collaborator Pascal Bonitzer ("Small Cuts") that adapts Agatha Christie's 1946 novel "The Hollow" to chic present-day Gaul. With high-class corpses popping up faster than corks off champagne bottles, and strong ensemble thesping, this potboiler is pleasant enough, although the suspense often seems less about who killed whom than who will shut up first.

With:
With: Miou-Miou, Lambert Wilson, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Pierre Arditi, Anne Consigny, Mathieu Demy, Caterina Murino, Maurice Benichou, Celine Sallette, Agathe Bonitzer, Emmanuelle Riva, Dany Brillant.

Nobody’s innocent in “The Great Alibi,” a highly chatty, highly French whodunit from veteran writer and Jacques Rivette collaborator Pascal Bonitzer (“Small Cuts”) that adapts Agatha Christie’s 1946 novel “The Hollow” to chic present-day Gaul. With high-class corpses popping up faster than corks off champagne bottles, and strong ensemble thesping, this potboiler is pleasant enough, although the suspense often seems less about who killed whom than who will shut up first. Local B.O. since April 30 release has been mild, though fresh bodies could still turn up at offshore arthouses and on homevid.

Pic is the third in a recent mini-boom in France of Christie adaptations, following Pascal Thomas’ “By the Pricking of My Thumbs” and “Towards Zero.”

When lots of conniving, good-looking people get together at a beautiful country estate that also houses one of France’s premium firearms collection, it doesn’t take a Ph.D in Aristotelean dramatics to figure out what will happen next.

Estate in question belongs to Sen. Henri Pages (Pierre Arditi) and his control-freak wife, Elaine (Miou-Miou). The guests for the deadly weekend include heartthrob psychologist Pierre Collier (Lambert Wilson); his shafted spouse, Claire (Anne Consigny); his sculptress mistress, Esther (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi); and, as if things weren’t tricky enough, his ex-lover, Lea (Caterina Murino), an Italian movie star who likes skinny-dipping in public.

This frighteningly attractive cast of mature grown-ups is rounded out by two menacing twenty-somethings, teetotaler novelist Philippe (Mathieu Demy) and the beautiful but depressive Marthe (Celine Sallette).

First victim of the snobby shooting party is Pierre, who’s offed while taking a midday swim. When the smoke clears, it’s Claire who’s holding the deadly weapon, but soon a Columbo-like detective (Maurice Benichou) — replacing the original novel’s Hercule Poirot — arrives on the scene to interrogate the other guests. All, natch, seem to have a reason (primarily sexual) to have murdered Pierre.

Back in Paris, the story shifts to writer Philippe’s attempts to uncover the real killer, during which he gets mixed up with seductress Lea. At this point, the narrative loses rhythm in a series of extended drawing-room conversations in which the characters verbally assault each other without much added action.

Best known for co-scripting works by auteurist helmers Rivette, Andre Techine, Raoul Ruiz and Chantal Akerman, Bonitzer has rarely managed to put the same muscle into his solo efforts. In this, his sixth feature, he offers up the usual Parisian gabfest with plenty of witty dialogue, but not much else in terms of interesting filmmaking.

Case in point is pic’s closing rooftop chase. Typically for an ex-Cahiers du Cinema critic, Bonitzer cites the famous opening pursuit in “Vertigo,” music cues and all, rather than going for something original.

Performances by some of Gaul’s finest help speed the narrative along to its half-predictable conclusion. Standouts include Wilson and Bruni-Tedeschi, who as husband and mistress make for the most captivating couple of all.

Technical credits are solid. Locations and decor emphasize what offshore arthouse auds like best in French capers: plenty of fashionable Paris apartments with nice top-floor views and a humungous mansion whose gardens resemble a mini-Versailles.

The Great Alibi

France

Production: A UGC Distribution release of an SBS Films, Medusa Film production, in association with La Sofica Soficinema 4, La Sofica UGC 1, with participation of TPS Star, CineCinema. (International sales: UGC Intl., Paris.) Produced by Said Ben Said. Directed by Pascal Bonitzer. Screenplay, Bonitzer, Jerome Beaujour, based on Agatha Christie's novel "The Hollow."

Crew: Camera (color), Marie Spencer; editor, Monica Coleman; music, Alexei Aigui; production designer, Wouter Zoom; costume designer, Marielle Robaut; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS Digital), Philippe Richard, Vincent Guillon, Emmanuel Croset; assistant director, Sylvie Peyre; casting, Antoinette Boulat. Reviewed at Cineville 9, Saint-Nazaire, France, May 2, 2008. Running time: 92 MIN.

With: With: Miou-Miou, Lambert Wilson, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, Pierre Arditi, Anne Consigny, Mathieu Demy, Caterina Murino, Maurice Benichou, Celine Sallette, Agathe Bonitzer, Emmanuelle Riva, Dany Brillant.

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