25 February 2010 | Chris Knipp
A petty swindle becomes an economic bonanza and a little news item turns into a great film
In the Beginning/À l'origine is the story of a small time crook who falls into a big con and thereby becomes both a hero to the locals and a mensch in his own eyes. The con and the project are doomed, but both are sweet while they last.
This suspenseful and curiously moving film includes a virtuoso lead performance by François Cluzet, was in competition at Cannes, and received eleven nominations at the French César awards. Director Xavier Giannoli (of The Singer) has again made a picture that's a sensitive study both of in individual and of a region. He also succeeds, like Lucas Belvaux in Rapt, in turning a news story that might seem on the face of it rather trivial into psychological and philosophical thriller. It makes you think, it keeps you on the edge of your seat, and it shows once again that the French really know how to make movies.
Paul (Cluzet), who uses the fake name Philippe Miller, is a petty con man who travels all around France Xing off construction projects on his highway map of the country. Taking down names and phone numbers from roadside signs and making deft use of product catalogs, he steals and resells parts and equipment from suppliers by pretending to be a project manager.
Miller hits pay dirt, and ultimately gets in much deeper than he plans, when he comes upon a highway project abandoned two years earlier due to its invading the habitat of a protected beetle. Faking involvement with the parent company in the project, he collects money and starts it up again.
Miller meets the eager, energetic Monika (Stéphanie Sokolinski, the singer known as Soko), who works at his motel, and her fresh-faced, sensitive boyfriend Nicolas (Vincent Rottiers). Before long he also meets the local mayor, Stéphane (Emmanuelle Devos) and becomes her lover.
Miller gets a local bank to issue him checks and advance funds for payments to suppliers that demand immediate payment. The bank wants a piece of the action too. But they will require authentication that Miller can never provide.
As the project takes off, Cluzet, as Miller, at first seems to be imploding. When asked embarrassing questions, he has a dozen ways of deflecting them. If all else fails he just says he has another appointment and runs off. The situation is too tempting for Miller to resist. He knows he's getting in way over his head. But isn't it the nature of the con man to seek bigger and bigger deceptions? Actually nobody loses much here.
The whole thing that terrified Miller begins to delight him. For once he is somebody. "I have wasted a lot of time" is one of his saddest lines to Stéphane, in bed. Of course ultimately Miller is going to go to jail, but he starts desperately trying to get the segment of highway completed before the time limit on payments ends and many bills become due. He's now paying out in salaries to the workers all the many thousands he accumulated at the outset. The money doesn't matter to him any more. He becomes a worker himself, pushing a broom to spread the asphalt in the rain. It's winter and the project is becoming more and more difficult to finish.
In the Beginning is a nail-biter all the way through, and in the end you will react as the local community did to the real con man in this story: some of you will take him for a real S.O.B. Others will believe him to be a pretty nice guy. Environment and action create identity. We are what we do. Here, Miller is what he makes happen. Workers don't always care about the utility of their employment. They don't much care about beetles. (What happens to them is barely mentioned. In fact they were transplanted to a forest.)
Cluzet, an extremely busy and popular French actor most recently seen by American audiences in Guillaume Canet's Tell No One (another hit thriller), is a neutral Frank Capra everyman, an individual who can seem shut down, but with a twinkle in the eye, a grump with a jovial chap hiding inside waiting to be let out. The film gradually lets out that chap, and then, when the big corporation comes in and the police descend, the highway project lit up at night like a film set, Miller is a little man who's strangely triumphant in defeat, waving the battered flag of his fake company.
This is another marvelous French film that transcends genre, turning a crime thriller into celebration of work. Judging by this and Giannoli's The Singer/Quand j'étais chanteur, he has great sensitivity to solitary wanderers and paints rich psychological portraits in a complex social environment. He doesn't know so well how to end things. There is a little uncertainty whether we can take À l'origine as a mood piece about economic desperation (as Up in the Air partly is; but this is Down on the Ground), a process picture, or a crime thriller. But it achieves success in each genre, because of the energetic world the director creates, the rich moral ambiguity he preserves. The secondary characters are of course a bit schematic, a bit obvious, but with such actors, they never seem that way. Like Laurent Cantet's study of a strike and of class conflict within a family, Human Resources, In the Beginning is about the human need to be doing work.
An official entry at Cannes 2009 as mentioned with 11 César nominations, À l'origine opened in Paris November 11, 2009 to very, very good reviews; more than one calls it "a great film." Shown as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema co-sponsored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Unifrance and screened at the Walter Reade Theater and the IFC Center in New York in March 2010.