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Mark of an Angel (12A)

Misdirection and mastery

So much film direction is misdirection, and in a thriller the tendency is more noticeable still.

A camera movement here, a sudden change of lighting there, and the audience will feel the way has been pointed, even if it later proves a feint, or a complete wrong turning. In Mark Of An Angel the misdirection is sometimes subtle, sometimes not so, but director Safy Nebbou in the end deserves the benefit of the doubt for just about preserving credibility when the plot goes into a wild reverse skid.

The film's first trick is to lure us in without giving too much away. Divorced single mother Elsa (Catherine Frot) has an outward poise and elegance that look convincing until one day, collecting her young son from a party, she spots a six-year-old girl she thinks she recognises. By stages she learns the girl's name – Lola – and tracks her to her home; then she ingratiates herself with Lola's mother Claire (Sandrine Bonnaire) so she can observe the girl at close quarters. What kind of creepiness is this, one wonders? Elsa seems to have some bond with the child, yet there's something unstable and obsessive about her interest, which both her own son ("Dad's right – you're depressive") and Claire begin to twig. Then we discover that Elsa lost her newborn daughter six years before in a hospital fire ...

Safy Nebbou has learnt suspense from Hitchcock. The first time he casts Elsa as the scary stalker he cheats a little by making it a dream sequence. But the second time is genuinely creepy: a long scene set at a school ballet concert (very Hitch) shifts cleverly between Elsa staring at Lola from the wings, Claire spotting Elsa from the stalls, and Lola herself giving her nervous all on stage. The lighting tips us the wink very obviously here. Elsa, standing under banks of lighting, is bathed in a red glare (she's in spiritual hell) and then a green haze (she's sick, or jealous, or both). Prior to this we have seen her swallowing antidepressants and breaking down in tears at the pharmacy where she works. That's enough to make us uneasy. Then, when Elsa's elderly parents start to exchange worried glances, we are envisaging scenes of their daughter being restrained in a hospital while doctors shake their heads in resignation.

For at some point we feel certain that there will be blood; a break-in and perhaps a kidnap attempt will ensure it. There is in fact a savage fight between Elsa and Claire, though its outcome wrongfoots us. Just when the film seems to have boxed itself into a corner – an innocent family torn apart by the delusions of a psycho-mum – it performs an audacious volte-face that few would have seen coming. I'm not sure about it even now, but one has to doff the chapeau to Catherine Frot and Sandrine Bonnaire for creating in these maternal rivals a degree of ambiguity that allows sympathy to slide one way, then the other. One also admires Nebbou's careful use of design: Claire's house at first seems to show us a perfect home, and a family with nothing to hide. Too perfect, possibly. You think again of the electric security gates that close off the outside world. Could there be a secret after all? These details may occur to you later. What Mark Of An Angel does very well is a minute-by-minute accumulation of doubt shading into dread. That it ends entirely unexpectedly is at once a coup de cinema and a bit of a cheat.