×

Film Review: ‘Based on a True Story’

While this French-language thriller ranks among Roman Polanski's weakest films, it offers two actresses a chance to play 'Repulsion'-style crazy.

Director:
Roman Polanski
With:
Emmanuelle Seigner, Eva Green, Vincent Perez. (French dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5893264/

It’s hard to talk about Roman Polanski’s “Based on a True Story” without revealing the twist, although it’s much harder trying to imagine anyone actually falling for it. A thin psychological two-hander between two writers, both of them women, this over-obvious metaphor for the creative process — never quite thrilling enough to qualify as a thriller, but still unsettling enough to intrigue — inevitably results in the publication of the book within the book upon which the film is based, and in so doing forces Polanski to return to his roots.

That doesn’t mean audiences will get much insight into either the director’s process or his own dark secrets, mind you. Rather, the film recalls the uncertain, almost hallucinatory quality of his early work — movies such as “Cul-de-Sac,” “Repulsion” and “Rosemary’s Baby,” where the very fabric of what we’ve been watching is called into question. That could be fascinating, if Polanski permitted himself to reveal so much as a fraction of the perversion we’ve come to expect from his movies, but even with two capable leading ladies (real-life wife Emmanuelle Seigner, who dominated in “Venus in Fur,” and Eva Green, so deliciously sinister in nearly everything she’s done), the chemistry here hardly rises above room temperature.

At the source of the problem is the fact that the conceit behind “Based on a True Story” works best in printed form: It’s one thing to question the provenance of the book readers are holding in their hands, but quite another to add the filter of cinema to the equation. So, no matter how accomplished a screenwriter script collaborator Olivier Assayas may be, the simple act of transforming French novelist Delphine de Vigan’s bestselling “Based on a True Story” into a movie erects an additional barrier between the public and the audacious self-scrutiny that should make such an endeavor interesting.

Here, de Vigan becomes Delphine Dayrieux (Seigner, whose performance conveys nothing of a writer’s over-active imagination), while Green plays her mysterious new friend — and potential rival — known only as “L.” (imperfectly translated to “Her” in the English subtitles, the closest one can get for an initial that doubles as the indefinite pronoun “Elle”). The two meet after an exhausting series of publicity events, at which Delphine basks in the praise of her adoring readers. Not all the feedback is so positive, however: At home, she receives a creepy, typewritten letter from someone who accuses her of milking her family’s misfortune.

After inexplicably confiding in Her, Delphine suddenly realizes that she hasn’t stopped to ask about Her — although the film barely gives us any of either woman’s backstory, mostly just teasing with the hollow promise that both have lived experiences vivid enough to inspire bestsellers. There are hints that Delphine has abandoned her two children, whose rooms are empty in her apartment (if they ever existed to begin with), and late in the film, she decides to plunder Her’s life for material, uncovering the wispiest fragments of stories about how Her’s husband and father died, both in extremely violent and painful ways.

But “Based on a True Story” ultimately concerns itself more with the present and the increasingly uncomfortable dynamic between the two women. Although Delphine is romantically involved with the host (Vincent Perez) of one of those uniquely French TV shows that treat writers like the intellectual stars they are, it’s a strategic alliance at best, and he spend the whole movie chasing interviews with more important A-list writers than her — or Her, who’s deeply envious of what has come so easy to Delphine. By contrast, Her can hardly take credit for anything she’s published, working as a ghost writer for politicians and celebrities (no connection to the plot of Polanski’s earlier “The Ghost Writer”). In America, at least, sell-outs like Her tend to make a far better living than those who must rely entirely on their imagination — although don’t talk to Her about blank pages: The film’s corniest gag features Green’s face popping out of an empty computer screen.

Frankly, Polanski hasn’t given us enough reason to fear Her for such a gimmick to scare us. Nor do we understand what draws Delphine to Her in the first place, apart from what they perceive as an uncanny physical resemblance — except that it’s virtually impossible to fathom that these two actresses, much less their characters, could be mistaken for one another. And yet, Delphine agrees to let Her move in for a few weeks, sharing the password to her computer and access to the notebooks in which she has recorded the most intimate details of her life. Only after Her is living under the same roof does she start to notice disturbing quirks in her new friend’s personality, like the way she smashes a noncompliant food processor to smithereens — although it’s still a stretch to imagine that Her will come after her with the rolling pin.

Although the screenplay contains all the beats needed to generate tension, Assayas’ gift for conveying information between the lines is almost entirely lost on Polanski, who doesn’t give his actresses the opportunity to flesh out the subtext of their most awkward interactions. Instead, there are entire scenes in which Green stares blank-faced at her glassy-eyed co-star, leaving the audience to project whatever sense of tension or mystery Polanski has failed to provide. Usually, an edgy score is enough to fill this void, though overworked composer Alexandre Desplat seems to have phoned this one in.

Once the two women relocate to Delphine’s country home, things really ought to heat up, but instead, it’s all too clear that Polanski is doing a paint-by-numbers job (Johnny Depp found himself in nearly the same fix in the 2004 Stephen King adaptation “Secret Window,” to name just one example). Few clichés are more tired than the novelist wrestling with writer’s block who finds the cure in writing about herself, and the only question here is which of the two ladies will end up exploiting what happens between them — although that novel would have to be much better than its adaptation to be a bestseller.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Based on a True Story'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings), May 27, 2017. Running time: 110 MIN. (Original title: “D'après une histoire vraie”)

Production: (France-Belgium) A Sony Pictures Classics (in U.S.), Mars Distribution (in France) release of a Wy Prods. production. Producer: Wassim Béji.

Crew: Director: Roman Polanski. Writers: Olivier Assayas, Polanski, based on the novel by Delphine De Vigan. Camera (color): Pawel Edelman. Editor: Margot Meynier. Music: Alexandre Desplat.

With: Emmanuelle Seigner, Eva Green, Vincent Perez. (French dialogue)

More Film

  • Inside an Inox Leisure multiplex in

    India's Inox Multiplex Chain Reveals Ambitious Growth Plans

    Indian multiplex chain Inox Leisure has revealed ambitious plans to more than double its existing screen capacity of 600. The company is planning to add 900 more screens across the country over the next decade. “That’s the realistic answer, but my desire is to do it over the next five years,” Siddharth Jain, director, Inox [...]

  • Joker

    Why 'Joker' Is About All of Us (Column)

    Take a look at the photo above. It’s the most poetic image to have emerged from Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” and the reason I say “poetic” isn’t just because the shot has that caught-in-action indelible vibe of a quintessential movie poster: graphic, hauntingly composed, a bit shocking (at least, the first time you see it). It’s [...]

  • Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s

    'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' Rules International Box Office With $117 Million

    Though Disney’s “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” stumbled at the domestic box office, the Angelina Jolie-led sequel enjoyed a far stronger start overseas. The follow-up to 2014’s fantasy adventure inspired by the “Sleeping Beauty” villain took off with $117 million from 56 international markets. In North America, “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” debuted with a meager $36 [...]

  • Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s

    Box Office: 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' Dominates With Soft $36 Million

    Five years after Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent” cast a spell over the box office, the villainous enchantress has returned to the top of domestic charts. Disney’s “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” a sequel to 2014’s fantasy adventure based on the “Sleeping Beauty” sorceress, flew lower than the original and debuted to a disappointing $36 million from 2,790 [...]

  • MIA Wrap

    Rome MIA Market Wraps With Stronger U.S. Presence, Boosts Italy's Industry Standing

    Rome’s MIA market for TV series, feature films and documentaries wrapped positively Sunday with organizers boasting a bump in attendance just as some 2,500 executives departed in an upbeat mood after four days of dealmaking and presentations of mostly European fresh product, which elevated Italy’s global standing in the industry, especially within the TV sector. [...]

  • Film Republic Adds Further Sales for

    Film Republic Inks Further Deals for 'God of the Piano' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Sales agent Film Republic has closed further territory sales on “God of the Piano.” Film Movement previously picked up North American rights to the film, as reported exclusively by Variety. Mont Blanc Cinema has taken the rights for Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay. Limelight Distribution is looking after the Australian and New Zealand releases, Hualu [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content