Eight years ago Dr Alex Beck (Cluzet) lost his wife and now new evidence makes him look like the guilty party. Beck must prove his innocence whilst trying to uncover the origins of a mysterious email that seems to suggest his wife is still alive.
Tell No One is an exhilarating thriller from French director Guillaume Canet. It’s based on Harlan Coben’s novel of the same name and it certainly borrows from longform storytelling. The movie is just over two hours long and it ebbs and flows as the novelistic narrative requires.
Plot wise Tell No One is a sprawling epic, an ode to obsession and loss. It’s a labyrinth of twists and turns, red herrings, and false promises. Our hero doctor embraces a role that wouldn’t look out of place in an Agatha Christie novel. He’s good looking, educated, and he wants to find out the truth. He’s a very modern man in Tell No One’s increasingly postmodern world.
The story opens with Beck and his wife enjoying some time in the countryside together. We see flashes of Alex and his wife as children and it becomes apparent that they were childhood lovers. It’s beautifully shot, the cinematography bright, but things take an unexpected turn. During the night Alex’s wife disappears and he’s beaten up and left for dead in a lake.
Cut to eight years later and Alex is only just recovering from the loss of his wife. The case was solved although suspicion of Alex was never quite disproved. Alex was hit so hard that he ended up in a coma for three days but there are unresolved questions about how he survived. This is a problematic development and one that the audience has no answers for either.
We’re left with our suspicions. We don’t know what happened so our empathy isn’t with Alex, our desire isn’t for his name to be cleared, it’s to get to the bottom of it all. Just like Alex himself we want to know what happened. As evidence mounts that Alex may have committed even more murders it becomes harder for him to conduct the search for his wife due to the watchful eyes of the police.
Finding his wife takes precedent for Alex as he receives a series of emails that imply that his wife is alive. At the same time the police investigation is closing in and Alex learns that there is an arrest warrant out in his name. This prompts perhaps the most exhilarating aspects of the story to come to the fore. We follow Alex on a terrifying escape on foot, through Paris and across dangerously busy motorways.
A brash genre piece
This is where Tell No One really comes into it’s own. It wears the thriller genre like a well fitting shirt and for the second half of the film it tears around Parisian streets with carefully executed set pieces. Our wealthy doctor has to seek help from a crook that he aided a few years back ensuring that the white-collar narrative of the opening act becomes a distant memory.
Guns, violence and murder become necessary tools for survival and Tell No One gradually succumbs to its film noir influences. The ambiguous doctor isn’t easily defined, he’s neither good nor bad, but he’s certainly unlucky. External forces conspire regularly to force him to act and his action is always frenetic if at times misplaced.
Harlan Coben’s novelistic influences
The American influences of Harlan Coben’s novel can be seen in the slick production of the film itself. But Canet works hard to develop every aspect of the film. The visuals are stunning, the soundtrack infectious, and the characters are carefully depicted. There’s Alex’s sister (Marina Hands) and her lesbian lover (Kristen Scott Thomas); there’s Alex’s wife’s father (Jean Rochefort) who is a wealthy senator with a racehorse obsession. Then there is the retired police captain who is Alex’s father in law (Francois Berleand) and the only person that believes his innocence.
Perhaps one of the better characters is Alex’s criminal friend played by Gilles Lellouche. He enjoys several moments that could be found in another French film, A Prophet (2009). In fact there’s another notable foreign language film that Tell No One has some marked similarities with, the Argentinian movie The Secrets in Their Eyes (2009).
One of the best parts about Tell No One is its ambiguity. There’s a distinct lack of certainty in Alex and his wife’s relationship, the opening romantic sequence becomes increasingly hard to recall as the film progresses. Much like it is for Alex, the past becomes somewhere that’s difficult to visit, partly because the present is so full of doubt. Memory is a tricky thing and for Alex it becomes a different animal entirely, cruel, tenacious, and potentially revisionist.
There is perhaps one problem with Tell No One and that is its apparent lack of female autonomy although this does become less of an issue towards the end of the movie. There are a number of female characters that are beaten or killed by male characters. This leaves a slight problem of misogyny or perhaps it just smacks of old-fashioned storytelling.
This is a stylistic choice that Guillaume Canet made. It’s a movie that borrows from films from the past but it also shows a very modern and polished approach to film making. The soundtrack is full of popular English language pop songs including tracks by Jeff Buckley and U2. In fact there’s a specific montage that stands out in Tell No One and it’s reliance on non diegetic sound makes for a slick almost music video like sequence.
Tell No One is an old fashioned masculine tale of obsession, love, and violence. It increases the stakes, forces us to care, and makes its hero jump through impossible hoops to find out what happened to his wife. This is a stylised movie, classically composed, and the storytelling is slick, polished, and exciting. This is a thriller that doesn’t apologise for its form, and it shouldn’t.
Tell No One is a very European tale with decidedly American tropes. Somewhere in the middles sits a film that does everything The Fugitive (1993) did – but with more style.