Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

All right. Bear with me here while we work through Guilliaume Nicloux’s film ‘La Clef’ or ‘The Key’ if you prefer a literal translation, because this is a movie that has put the word ‘foreign’ into the phrase ‘foreign film’.

Our film opens in the year 1976 where we see a man named De Voll burnt to a crisp with a flame thrower while he lay in his bed by a man named Segers. Why this cat did this is neither explained nor it is very important, but what is important is the person who has done this heinous act. Bad people do bad things sometimes so just roll with it.

32 years later we meet the completely ordinary Eric Vincent (Guilliume Canet). An average guy with an average job and an average wife named Audrey (Marie Gillian) who like most average married guys finds this average woman extraordinarily getting on his freaking nerves. Out of the blue Eric gets a call from some guy named Arp (Jean Rochefort) who claims to have been a friend of his father, the afore seen Segers. Eric never knew his biological father so he’s not interested in anything this old man has to say but Arp is a persistent one. Eric’s wife has ridden his nerves so completely, mainly about her wanting a child, that he figures maybe he should see this guy and work out whatever problems are inherent in his personality that’s upsetting his woman so. Not much comes of this meeting other than Eric seeing Arp’s completely insane younger sister but Arp does pass Eric an urn with his late father’s ashes in it.

Back to 1976 where detective Michele Varin (Josiane Bolasko) is investigating De Voll’s murder. Interestingly enough this murder introduces the detective to some characters who are relevant to our present situation such as Monsieur Arp for instance and then there’s the reticent pregnant woman Laure (Gilles Cohen), who worked for De Voll who seems to know more than she’s telling.

Back to the present day. Somehow Eric finds himself somewhat involved with a junkie hooker named Cecile (Vanessa Paradis) who has gotten Eric mixed up with a rather violent and loathsome crew of drug dealers who think Eric might be stealing their product, with all of this relating to the urn giving to Eric by Arp. Cecile, by the way, has a sick a father (Thierry Lhmitte) who is desperately searching for his daughter because she holds the key to possibly curing his terminal cancer.

And so it goes back and forth from Detective Marin’s murder investigation in 1976 back to the present where Eric has found his life turned completely upside down and turned around by this junkie prostitute.

If you have seen ‘La Clef’ then by all means read on but if you haven’t and hope to see the movie then DON’T CONTINUE because I’m going talk about some plot critical elements and most of what makes this movie interesting is the way in which Nicloux unveils the information to his audience, but it is this same thing that makes this movie so damned frustrating at times.

The main plot points of ‘La Clef’ are very clear. Eric is the child that was stolen from his mother in 1976, a mother who was Arp’s younger sister with the child being taken and not to be returned until Arp did something about the Segers problem. Understood. Arp contacts Eric because he hopes Eric can help his sister not be so crazy, but what I am unclear about is how Eric ended up in adoption or foster care or whatever since Laure had the baby returned to her. Another thing about this movie that baffled me is why Eric had this attraction to the prostitute Cecile. These drug dealers who grabbed Eric, tazed Eric, punched Eric in the face and have clearly demonstrated to Eric that they aren’t a bunch of fun loving guys so why would anybody circle back to their hideout to save one person who is largely responsible for him being in this situation in the first place. Soul mates? Just a really great guy who is doing the right thing? He’s just a lunatic who has tired of living? His wife is such a monumental bitch that life with a junkie prostitute is more appealing? It’s not clear to me.

Then there’s the crime element that’s also a little befuddling in that Arp gives Eric an urn, these criminals steal the urn believing it be a drug transport or something, the worst criminals want the urn back and these criminals work for Arp. I think it would be reasonable to think these criminals, considering they work for Arp and all, should already be aware that Eric isn’t in league with these thieves. I would think. Then there’s the father’s search for his daughter which feels tacked on and seems to serve the sole purpose of contriving some symbolic irony at the movies conclusion, and then there was ‘the key’. We get to see ‘the key’ at the end of the movie being worn by a older,  totally crazed Laure, but I have no idea what ‘the key’ is suppose to represent, though I’m sure for the deeper thinkers out there can see it as symbolically powerful.

‘La Clef’ is worth watching because it is very well acted, Gabrielle Canet does a good job as the man out of his depth, though I think I prefer him more as a film director as opposed to a leading man. Nicloux unspools his story in a way that keeps you interested in what will happen next, but it does get frustratingly confusing at times, at least it did to me, with most of this confusion coming off as completely unnecessary and not in service to the overall value of the story.

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