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.