When Hollywood adapts European stories, it smooths out their rougher edges. However, when Europeans turn to US source material, they invariably add layers of complexity and peculiarity all their own. Here, Douglas Kennedy's debut novel, a thriller about a Wall Street lawyer suffering an identity crisis, has been turned by the French director Eric Lartigau into a quintessentially Gallic drama with a strong existential undertow. Unless you knew already, you would never guess the project's American origins. The plotting and tone are wildly uneven. Non-sequiturs abound and, more than occasionally, pretentiousness creeps in. Nonetheless, The Big Picture is ultimately an impressive and moving film. The trump card is Romain Duris, playing a character almost as contradictory as his thug/piano virtuoso in The Beat My Heart Skipped (adapted from US director James Toback's Fingers) and giving another remarkable performance. He brings an introspective intensity to his role that recalls Jack Nicholson in his best films of the early 1970s and makes it seem churlish to complain about the sometimes mannered storytelling.
The film begins in the heart of middle-class Paris with the sound of a baby crying. Paul Exben (Duris) clambers out of bed to tend to the infant. Paul is a lawyer with a top job. His boss (Catherine Deneuve) wants to leave him the business. He has a beautiful wife (Marina Foïs) and young children he adores. However, we discover quickly that he's unhappy. His dream was to be a photographer. If he is frustrated, so is his wife, who yearned to be a writer and blames him for her lack of success. She has been having an affair. Worse, her lover actually is a photographer – a man who lacks his talent but is enjoying the life he craves.
Early on, The Big Picture plays like The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin as if written by Patricia Highsmith. Paul wants to disappear; to assume a new identity and live creatively. An act of violence gives him the chance to fulfill the dream. In the opening scenes, the film-makers enjoy showing Paul's day-to-day life in the heart of chic bourgeois Paris. He attends dinner parties, business lunches and meetings with clients. Then a man dies and Paul goes on the run. As in so many Hitchcock films in which James Stewart or Cary Grant play white -collar types in peril, Duris's deskbound lawyer is suddenly confronted with violence, lawlessness and danger – and proves surprisingly adept at coping. The ties of his job and family are far easier to break than he could have imagined.
Once Paul has fled to Montenegro, the film changes tack. The well-dressed Parisien lawyer becomes a filmic equivalent of Dostoevsky's "Underground Man": an anti-hero living under an assumed identity in the shadows. The tempo of the storytelling slows. We see a now bearded and bedraggled Paul moping around a beautiful but down-at-heel seaside town. It takes an actor of Duris's quality to hold the film together in these scenes. Dialogue is minimal. The urgency is all but gone and his character risks becoming just another navel-gazing movie loner, pondering the metaphysical meaninglessness of existence. The irony – very well conveyed by Duris – is that he is happier here than in Paris. The French title of the film is L'Homme Qui Voulait Vivre Sa Vie (The Man Who Wanted to Live His Life). This is what Paul is finally managing to do. The solipsism and selfishness of the character is self-evident, but Duris also hints at his vulnerability.
Then, the tack changes again. There is a large measure of wish-fulfillment fantasy and cliché about the way that this loner on the run suddenly blossoms forth as a Cartier-Bresson style photographer with an uncanny knack of capturing the poetry in the everyday. He specialises in taking pictures of workers and dockers. They have an immediate trust in him because he is unobtrusive and seems to share their concerns.
The director Lartigau and his producer Pierre-Ange Le Pogam (who secured the book rights, developed it over many years and even appears as a dinner party guest early in the movie) are clearly caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, they're trying to make a thriller. On the other, they want to tell a much darker story about a middle-class everyman confronting the emptiness in his life. They're wary, though, about being too nihilistic. Even in faraway Eastern Europe, Paul can't escape his old existence altogether. There are a surprising number of French speakers keen to draw him back into a world not so different from the one he just left behind. A hard-drinking newspaper editor (Niels Arestrup, who played the patriarch in The Prophet) champions his photography. A beautiful picture editor (Branka Katic) begins an affair with him. Galleries want to show his work. Soon, he risks being dragged back into a life not so different from the one he was so desperate to leave behind.
Right until the very end, The Big Picture continues to throw in plot twists and to undermine our expectations about its main character. At times, we're left scratching our heads at what's motivating him or the film-makers. Nonetheless, Duris plays Paul with such urgency and soulfulness that we follow him on his strange journey, however random its turns become. That, of course, is exactly the trick Jack Nicholson used to perform in films like Five Easy Pieces and The Passenger.