Unfolding in the same moral gray area as “Michael Clayton,” where ethical compromises resonate louder than gunshots, Nicolas Pariser’s “The Great Game” suggests how a sophisticated French helmer might spin the ingredients of a John Grisham-style potboiler. Amusingly enough, it is a book, not a bomb, that threatens to disrupt the country’s balance of power as a burnt-out novelist (the naturally introspective Melvil Poupaud) finds himself a pawn in a political game of chess. Such a refreshing emphasis on ideas over action should suit both locals and American arthouse-goers, though it’s worth noting that Pariser’s approach, while thoughtful, leaves ample room for a romantic subplot, climactic footchase and so on.
If anything, such genre-movie concessions distract from the qualities that make “The Great Game” such a distinctively French offering, with its enticing glimpse of how the wheels turn behind the facade of Paris’ Elysee Palace. Post-Watergate, Americans have been conditioned to expect car bombs and conspiracy theories in their political thrillers, though the cynicism tends to be much subtler in France — a democracy where a popular majority decides elects the leaders, and yet, as the film makes clear, a select few pull the strings.
Here, the ostensible puppet master is an affable white-haired gentleman named Joseph Paskin (Andre Dussollier, an elder statesman of French stage and screen, recently seen playing a similarly shadowy role in Volker Schloendorff’s “Diplomacy”) who casually approaches the sullen Pierre Blum (Poupaud) outside a French casino. At first, Joseph pretends not to recognize the 40-ish writer (and why should he, since it’s been 15 years since he published his one all-but-forgotten novel?), though time will soon reveal that there are no coincidences where Paskin’s character is concerned.
His idealism broken by an indifferent public, Pierre has lost faith in his potential to make a difference. As he puts it, “the desire to change the world had only given rise to a literary subgenre,” a small collection of well-respected but otherwise irrelevant treatises, among which his own contribution now sits moldering in used book shops — that is, until Paskin makes him a job offer: “to write the ultimate masterpiece in the subgenre you mentioned,” and in so doing, help him bring down the Minister and oust his allies.
Blum is, in effect, being hired as an intellectual assassin, and only in France, could such a notion exist: That the freedom of speech is more powerful than censorship, and that an idea, if articulated well enough in print, could tip public sentiment enough to foment revolution. And that’s exactly what happens, though not exactly to plan, as Blum’s anonymously published “Itinerary of a Letter” swings the left into action and sets off a slow-motion chain of events that ultimately endangers his gallerist ex-wife Caroline (Sophie Cattani), activist love interest Laura (Clemence Poesy) and their entire circle of separatist protestors (who’d rather cut themselves off from politics than change it).
Such a cynical dynamic might come late in a filmmaker’s career, though it’s startling to find in a first-timer. But Pariser is hardly your typical tyro. At age 40, he’s had time to form such impressions on how the world works, drawing from a diverse liberal arts education and an interest in politics in particular (that passion previously apparent in his half-hour short, “La Republique,” which earned Pariser the Prix Jean Vigo, an award that helped launch such careers as those of Laurent Cantet and Arnaud Despelchin). Prior to realizing “The Great Game,” the aspiring writer-director spent four years working for international cinema champion Pierre Rissient, who no doubt provided a model for Dussollier’s discreet operator. Of course, Paskin could just as easily represent another era entirely, a convivial king-maker who glides invisibly behind the curtain of power.
Paskin is, frankly, a far more interesting character than Blum, though Pariser it makes perfect sense that identifies more with the latter. After all, “The Great Game” tells the story of how a disillusioned author got his groove back — but the tony thriller also loses steam just when one might expect the story to get interesting: After his book’s publication, Blum can’t take credit for its success, though the right (wrong?) people clearly know he’s responsible, ransacking his apartment and putting him under surveillance. Blum decides to lay low, shifting his focus to a not terribly engaging love affair — and yet even during this dramatic lull, the game advances in intriguing new ways, as Blum and the audience come to realize that there are no rules.