vt The Black Box
France / 88 minutes / color plus some limited color / EuropaCorp, TF1, Canal+, TPS Star, Sofica EuropaCorp Dir: Richard Berry Pr: Michel Feller Scr: Eric Assous, Richard Berry Story: “La Boîte Noire” (2000) by Tonino Benacquista Cine: Thomas Hardmeier Cast: José Garcia, Marion Cotillard, Michel Duchaussoy, Bernard Le Coq, Gérald Laroche, Helena Noguerra, Marisa Borini, Nathalie Nell, Pascal Bongard, Steve Campos, Hugo Brunswick, Pierre-Ange Le Pogam.
When Arthur Seligman (Garcia) wakes in hospital from a coma he’s convinced that, driving too fast, he slew a young boy on a bicycle who was coming the other way along the road. The nurse in charge of his case, Isabelle Kruger (Cotillard), tells him that no trace of boy or bicycle has been found; it seems that he missed a bend, rolled the car, and is mighty lucky to still be alive. However, she can tell him that he burbled mightily during his coma and that she took copious notes of what he said. The contents of the notebook that she gives to him could serve, she says, as his black box to recover what was going through his mind just before the crash.
Nurse Isabelle (Marion Cotillard).
Arthur discharges himself from the hospital, discovers to his horror that he’s in Cherbourg rather than his native Paris, takes the train home, finds his tatty apartment much the same as always and his booted-up computer waiting, starts typing Isabelle’s notes into the computer and printing them out in BIG LETTERS, then sticks the printouts all over the apartment walls. The cryptic notes include items like “Sylvain Ganem wants revenge, Sylvain Ganem wants to kill me” and “RP-50” and “Fynoil buys out ACGroup” and “Texas doesn’t exist”, all of which seem to make sense at all.
Arthur (José Garcia) plasters his flat with printouts.
In trying to solve the riddle of what actually happened to him and what these phrases could mean, Arthur finds himself in a world where nothing can be taken for granted, where people can suddenly disappear even as he’s talking to them, where the lunch-hour streets of Paris, normally bustling, can suddenly be entirely deserted. He phones his father (Duchaussoy) and visits his mother (Borini) in the old folks’ home where she’s incarcerated to ask them both about his brother Yvan, but neither offers a satisfactory answer. He consults a sort of herbalist drugmonger, Clovis (Bongard), who gives him a potion that’s supposed to clear his mind but instead gives him paranoid visions. He screws a flight-attendant girlfriend (Noguerra) in an underground parking lot, then listens fatalistically as she tells him she wants to end the affair. He has flashbacks to his childhood when, at age 7 (Campos), he nearly killed himself by falling down—or throwing himself down?—a flight of marble stairs.
The crazed herbalist Clovis (Pascal Bongard).
Young Arthur (Steve Campos) at the top of the marble stairs.
At the suggestion of Isabelle he visits the hypnotherapist Walcott (Le Coq) and, in his trance, has even more jumbled visions than the one he had in his coma. He’s hauled in by police Commissaire Koskas (Laroche), subjected to The Trial-like interrogation, and accused of the murder of Isabelle, found hideously butchered not long after Arthur made love to her in her apartment . . .
The sinister Commissaire Koskas (Gérald Laroche).
Soraya (Helena Noguerra) dead in Arthur’s flat.
And then he wakes from his coma again. The man he has known as Walcott is really Dr. Granger, head of the medical team that’s working on his case. The druggy Clovis is the anaesthiologist. Isabelle is nowhere to be seen, but the hospital supplies him a psychologist, Dr. Brenner (Nell), who gives him not a notebook but a microtape of his comatic ramblings. Arthur’s parents arrive to take him home to his apartment—far from being a dementia victim in a home his mother is as sharp as a tack—and he finds that his brother Yvan (Brunswick) died decades ago in childhood when a speeding car drove his bicycle (upon which the seven-year-old Arthur clung behind) off a cliff.
There are all sorts of cast doublings-up here, as various figures in Arthur’s earlier fevre dream prove to have their own real-life existences. Some we’ve noted. Notable others are that Arthur’s flight-attendant girlfriend isn’t the woman she thought he was: her name’s Alice, but in his coma dream he thought she was Isabelle. The flight attendant he dreamed of screwing was in fact the mistress, Soraya, with whom his father was cavorting at the time of the accident that killed Yvan—when the father was supposedly on a business trip to Texas (“Texas doesn’t exist”). The fearsome Commissaire Koskas is in fact Arthur’s patently gay cop neighbor Marc Koskas, only too happy to help Arthur dig into the events of the past . . .
Alice = Isabelle = Marion Cotillard.
By the end of the movie Arthur solves the mystery of who was responsible for the death of Yvan and identifies the mysterious Sylvain Ganem. He also learns to understand a remark the nurse Isabelle made during his coma:
“There are three distinct people inside each of us: The one we want to be. The one we think we are. And the one we truly are. The first two are very familiar but the third is totally unknown. That’s the one in your black box.”
The first half of the movie is rather like a more grounded version of David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991), in which you can never trust reality to stay the way you think it is for more than a few moments at a time. The most overt manifestation of this is when a host of birds break through the windows of Clovis’s drugs laboratory to attack Arthur (cultural references: Saki’s hero/antihero Clovis, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds ), but perhaps a more chilling example is when Arthur, supposedly seated at a sidewalk Parisian café, is woken by the waiter and finds himself in what appears to be an entirely deserted city.
The branch from which Yvan fell.
Arthur (José Garcia) meets the killer at last.
Hardmeier’s cinematography makes this an astonishingly beautiful movie to watch—almost selfconsciously beautiful, in fact. The use of color values throughout is very painterly, with blues preponderating in the fevre-dream sections and a sort of washed-out sepia in the flashbacks. And Hardmeier is obviously fully conscious of his noir antecedents and the expressionist camera angles they adopted: a vivid example comes late in the movie when, after Arthur has been questioning a business buddy about the whole “Fynoil buys out ACGroup” thing (the buddy responds scornfully that “A fly can bite an elephant, not eat it”), the camera rocks slightly back, then straight up into the air to look down on Arthur, then rotates.
As far as I can find out, Benacquista’s novella, upon which this movie is based, hasn’t yet been published in an English translation. I hope that situation is rectified soon.