Page Turner, The: Dercourt’s Stylishly Psychological Thriller

French Psychological Thriller

Palm Springs Film Fest 2007–Denis Dercourt’s stylishly elegant psychological thriller “The Page Turner” recalls many movies of this genre’s masters, such as Hitchcock, Chabrol, and De Palma, but it stands on its own merits as an emotionally satisfying and narratively coherent work, beautifully acted by Deborah Francois, last seen in the Dardenne brothers’ Cannes competition winner, “L’Enfant” (“The Child”).

The movie premiered in the Festival de Cannes last year (in the Certain Regard sidebar), but I saw it last week at the Palm Springs Film Festival and highly recommend it to aficionados of the suspenseful psychological drama in general and the Gallic variation in particular.

In the credits sequence, director Dercourt alternates shots of a young girl named Melanie Prouvost (Julie Richalet) playing the piano with a small-town butcher, her father (Jacques Bonnaffe) going just as skillfully and methodically about his mtier. She’s the butcher’s only daughter, enjoying the complete support of her parents and about to participate in a major audition that will determine her future career as a pianist. For reasons that can’t be explained her, the audition goes awry and the girl, utterly frozen, leaves the room of the Conservatory without uttering one word to her worried mother (Christine Citt), but not before interrupting another girl’s warm-up.

Back home, Melanie hides away her favorite memento, a bust of Beethoven (which will turn up later in the plot) and shuts down the piano keyboard. Recovered: Finis la comedie ou la tragedie Not really. The tension has just begun.

Cut to a decade after this fateful event and to Melanie as a young, subdued woman (now played by Dborah Franois), getting a job as an intern at a law firm of Jean Founchecourt (Pascal Greggory). Shy but diligent and studious, she immediately ingratiated herself with Jean and his other employees. Jean’s chatty secretary tells Melanie that her resume stood out because she wrote a “very impressive letter of motivation.” It turns out that Jean is married to a famous concert pianist Ariane (Catherine Frot), who was one of Melanie’s jurors at her audition.

Upon hearing that Jean is looking for a housekeeper-governess to look after his son, she volunteers for the job and before long arrives at the family’s lavish country estate. At first, she cooks, takes care of the boy’s needs, and does all kinds of chores, but then Ariane needs a page-turner in preparation for a big comeback concert. The audition is to be attended by an American agent who might sign her and her two-member group for a U.S. tour.

Dercourt borrows Pasolini’s thematic premise of “Teorema”a handsome outsider (played by Terrence Stamp) who invades a house and exerts fateful, even tragic effect on each of the family members including the housekeepersbut without the allegorical implications and moral redemption of Pasolini’s paradigm.

In due course, Mlanie interacts along different lines with Ariane, her son, and her husband, though the latter disappears from the scene quite conveniently to let Melanie play her games of control, desire, and revenge. In this respect, “Page Turner” recalls Losey’s “The Servant,” which also involves power and class conflicts between a master (James Fox) and his seemingly passive and indifferent servant (Dirk Bogarde).

Gradually, the servant’s presence and help become crucial to the very functioning of the highly-strung and insecure Ariane, who gives Melanie the crucial role of being the page-turner at her recitals.

As noted, Dercourt’s work is more modest than either Pasolini or Losey’s films. Genre-wise, it’s closer to Hitchcock, Chabrol, and De Palma. The protagonist’s very name, Melanie, might have been inspired by Hitchcock’s masterpiece “The Birds,” whose heroine is Melanie Daniels (played by Tippi Hedren).

Hitchcock might have been inspirational in the way that Dercourt shoots his film, specifically Melanie’s walking in and around the house. Though not as obviously malicious and obsessive as Judith Anderson’s housekeeper in “Rebecca,” Melanie seems to be appear out of nowhere, just like Anderson’s Mrs. Danvers, as if she is hovering around the house, ready and willing to be at every place that matters. This includes the long, dark corridor leading to the indoor pool, where Ariane’s cute son is practicing diving for speedpay attention to the clock. Melanie persuades the son, who also plays the piano, to take more challenging pieces and do them fasterdespite the potential damage involved.

Dercourt is excellent in building tension and maintaining both suspense and ambiguity to the very end. Without spoiling the fun, I’ll just hint that there is sexual tension between Ariane and Melanie, who encourages her matron to fall for her and thus confuse the latter’s identity and shatter her bourgeois marriage, in which she’s obviously repressed or at least unfulfilledon any level.

The dialogue is sharp and often witty, but what impressed me the most is the quality of the detailed and precise mise-en-scene, a lost art among most contempo American directors. This is particularly evident in the first two reels of the picture, in which the measured pacing serves the storyline in a beautifully functional way that doesn’t call attention to itself (superb editing is by Francois Gedigier).

If the third reel is weaker and more predictable, it’s due to our familiarity with the suspense genre. Viewers who have seen the early, perverse Chabrol thrillers and De Palma’s ironic and humorous takes on Hitchcock will be able to predict the revenge plot and shock values, one of which feels like a tribute to De Palma’s “Carrie,” in what is the movie’s only bloody act).

Rigorously staged, “Page Turner” benefits from elegant cinematography by Jrme Peyrebrune, and the use of classic music. Dercourt has assembled works by Shostakovich, J.S. Bach, and Schubert, performed (in part) in the story and well integrated with Jacques Lemonnier’s contemporary score.

But, ultimately, the success of this movie depends on the performance of the young Belgian actress Deborah Franois, a beautiful without being stunning woman, who inserts every gesture, look, and walk with the proper sense of menace. Eerily self-possessed and coolly calculating, often wearing a sweet yet ambiguous smile, Francois gives an extremely intelligent and understated performance, sharply different from her angry working class girl-mother in “The Child.” Frot is equally good as the gifted artist whose talent is impressive but whose nerves are shaky, to say the least. Drawing on strong chemistry, their scenes together re the best in the movie.

Like Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” “Page Turner” is a spare, one-locale picture, mostly set in and around the imposing country mansion, surrounded by a huge garden and tennis courts. Decourt makes great, efficient use of the different spaces and levels within and without the house.

This is Dercourt’s fifth or sixth feature and it’s about time that entrepreneurial American distributor make his work available to the public. A professional viola player and conservatory professor, Dercourt has made some movies about musicians: “The Freelancers,” which I didn’t see, and “My Children Are Different,” which I did.