Wednesday, January 19, 2011 ESPION(S), Nicolas Saada proves anyone can be a spy

Have the Brits and the French really begun recruiting their espionage agents from the general public, more or less blackmailing them into the service of their country?  It would seem so from ESPION(S) -- aka Spy(ies) -- the 2009 film from writer/director Nicolas Saada (shown below) that posits this provocative idea in the form of a melodrama/
thriller that proves an entertaining, sometimes quite exciting ride for much of its 99 minutes. According to Saada's scenario -- which has two baggage handlers at Orly engaged in something that will make you think twice before checking your luggage again at an airport -- this is fine way to recruit, after which one good spy leads to another.

Within minutes of that initial "handling," something so horrible has happened that one of those baggage handlers (popular French actor/director Guillaume Canet) is running for his life, with we viewers happily tagging along for the ride. After a briefing from Hippolyte Girardot, playing one of those middle-management government sleazebags you love to hate, Canet is off across the Channel, cavorting with London society and falling in love with the elegant and reticent Géraldine Pailhas and taking orders from the likes of Stephen Rea (at left, in the penultimate photo below) and his adorable underling, played by Ms Archie Panajabi (shown at bottom). Soon, lies are piling atop lies, as one betrayal follows another -- with love and trust the usual victims.

Canet (above) and Pailhas (below) make a strangely appealing pair: He's looking older these days, and she younger, and their chemistry works in a slow, quiet manner. I'm not sure I buy into the conceit that homemade spies can learn quite this quickly or become so effective so fast.  Yet both actors radiant intelligence and are thus able carry off what the script doesn't quite manage.

Asked if he thinks someone is nice, "I don't know any 'nice' people," explains one middle-eastern character (played by Cairo Time's Alexander Siddig) at a dinner party. And after spending some time with the characters in Espion(s), you'll feel similarly.  That parenthetical (s) on the end of the title is quite correct, as nearly everyone we meet in the movie is nefarious on some level. When a young man is hauled in for questioning and asked, "What were you doing there?" he shoots back to his interrogator, "The same thing you're doing!"

Saada favors hand-held camera-work that put us up-close and personal with his characters, and if there's a little too much walking, following and tracking, the filmmaker generally brings us back to events and suspense quickly enough, leading us to a stunning denouement -- in which the distance on either side of a single glass window has rarely seemed so immense.

Espion(s) can be seen now through January 29, as part of the downloadable and inexpensive (around $2.50 per film) .  Check out the other ten titles (plus some short films) here.  I'll have more to say about at least two more of these films -- All About Actresses and All That Glitters -- in the next few days.  Don't let this terrific little festival-- featuring films you can't see anywhere else -- pass you by.

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