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‘Le Grand Alibi’

A French Agatha Christie update that makes no excuses

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One of the lasting mysteries of the French, along with their ability to guzzle wine and foie gras and still look great at the end of the meal — is an innate flair to appear relaxed and gorgeous during the summer months when that sort of aura becomes all- important. In this sense, “Le Grand Alibi” is extremely instructive: a classic French summer movie drenched in golden light and peopled by slim, snarky, wardrobe- obsessed types lounging in deep chairs and taking elegant drags at their cigarettes. The film also exudes sex without actually displaying any, a ploy that envelopes the whole thing in a silken shawl of eroticism. Put ’em all together and it’s Vive la France with a vengeance.

Yet “Le Grand Alibi” is English in origin, based on an Agatha Christie novel called “The Hollow.” Reportedly, Dame Christie’s personal tastes were Continental, even if the world she created on the tip of her pen was quintessentially British. “The Hollow,” however, is an exception — heavily psychological and sexual, it studies the consequences of a homme fatale who can’t help seducing every woman he sees, usually right under the nose of his “beloved” wife. In essence, it’s the kind of story that begs for a French adaptation, and probably has a hidden French pedigree.

Le Grand Alibi
Rating
Director Pascal Bonitzer
Run Time 93 minutes
Language French (subtitled in Japanese)

Director Pascal Bonitzer seems well aware of it, and treats the material with assurance, familiarity, even a little irreverence. For example, he has no problem with slashing the all-important Christie detective Hercule Poirot from the story, making do instead with a sour-faced French policeman with minimal lines. Neither does he care to put too much emphasis on the detecting: Despite its title, “Le Grand Alibi” has very little to do with alibis and a lot more to do with feverish summer weekends, jealousy, infidelity and murder by the pool. Yum.

The original story was published in 1946, but Bonitzer updates it to a strangely unassuming present day. With the exception of a few cell phones being wielded on occasion (though no iPhones or texting), there’s very little to indicate that this is happening in the 21st century. The backdrop is a sumptious country house in a lush, leafy province not far from Paris and the characters consist of neurotic artists, affluent politicians, women who cling and women who don’t. Everyone, in between hunting for mushrooms or opening bottles of Burgundy with typical ennui, has one overriding issue on their minds, and that’s l’amour.

The house belongs to hotshot senator Henri Pages (played with wonderful crankiness by Pierre Arditi) and his adorable but occasionally irritating wife Eliane (Miou-Miou). They spend most of the summer there, and invite friends over to break the monotony of each other’s company. This time, however, the excitement gets a little too much. Psychiatrist and raging womanizer Pierre Collier (Lambert Wilson) shows up with his wife, Claire (Anne Consigny), but Eliane had once been Pierre’s mistress and Esther (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) — a voluptuous sculptress — is his current lover. The mousy, docile Claire may or may not be aware of her husband’s escapades, and Bonitzer composes the frames so that Pierre and Claire are never close to each other, instead always occupying different corners of a room.

Dinner brings on more complications, with the arrival of Lea (Caterina Murino), Pierre’s one-time Italian lover. As all the women (including the Pages’ daughter) subtly vie for his attention, Pierre takes advantage and ultimately reaps the consequences.

Of all the women, Esther holds your interest most: She alone knows of Pierre’s other relationships, understands his need for a wife like Claire, and believes that he likes her best. Esther’s motherly, expansive charm offsets her indulgence of Pierre without sacrificing her own dignity, and it’s her presence that leaves you wondering what the hell she (and everyone else) sees in this shallow cad. Ah, the stuff of summer cocktails.