(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on November 2, 2012.)
Everyone remember Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Talented Mr. Ripley and the movie that was based on the novel starring Matt Damon? The Big Picture – also known as L’homme qui voulait vivre sa vie, literally translated as The Man Who Wanted to Live His Life – seems to almost remake this movie, but with kinder circumstances and none of the sociopathic tendencies. Originally released in 2010 and spending two years on the festival circuit, The Big Picture provides an examination of the moral, ethical, and emotional dilemmas that come with making drastic choices under duress.
The original title, The Man Who Wanted to Live His Life, is at once honest and probably a joke. The Man mentioned in the title is Paul Exben (Romain Duris), a lawyer with a troubled marriage and two loving kids; we see early on that his wife Sarah (Marina Foïs) has pretty much given up on her life with Paul, merely going through the motions for his and the children’s sakes. Interesting to note is how fast-paced and almost frantic this film feels in the early going – there’s a lot happening with Paul’s family and his business, as he’s being asked to take over the firm when its current owner dies. His friends, who come over for dinner and wine, are witness to an ugly exchange between him and Sarah. And during that dinner, he starts to get clued in on what proves to be his simultaneous making and unmaking: Sarah’s infidelity with his friend, photographer Grégoire Kremer (Eric Ruf). If you know how The Talented Mr. Ripley went, you should be able to make an educated guess as to what happens next, which is where the film takes on a different, more languid and relaxed tone in contrast to the hectic first half. The slight joke in the title is that the His is ambiguous: does Paul want to live his own life, or does he want to live the life of another? He chooses the latter, having duped everyone that he has committed suicide and that Grégoire has moved to another country on photographic assignment. Instead, Ben goes to the other country and begins his life as Grégoire, proving to be a very adept and talented photographer. However, once discovered, how far will he go to keep his secret?
The Big Picture does, indeed, have shades of The Talented Mr. Ripley – just not with any of the sociopathic tendencies, the homoerotic overtones, or the psychotic cunning of Tom Ripley. Paul has been put into his circumstance by accident, and it’s through the accident that he sees a way out from underneath the pressures crushing him. This is more of a crime of opportunity rather than a straight-out crime of hate or passion; it’s more like having a million dollars unexpectedly fall into your lap because you killed someone instead of killing someone to steal the million dollars. There’s the difference between the two stories, and while they still go into similar territory, one has to sympathize and root for Paul a little more than Tom Ripley. Director Eric Lartigau makes sure to underline the fact that Paul is basically a decent human being that has a soul that is still gnawing at him. Paul loves his children and still holds out hope for his wife, but the circumstances in which he’s put himself have made it impossible for him to make that known to them; we can feel a palpable torment coming off of him in his quieter moments.
The choices Paul makes are, indeed, morally questionable. However, when one’s nose is next to the grindstone and it’s got a hellish spin going, we see what they’re truly capable of doing, and it’s always interesting to see in films – examples like Falling Down, Collateral, and Death Wish come to mind almost immediately. The Big Picture is a much quieter, more introspective look at a man living on the edge of a knife; Romain Duris plays the embattled Paul well, with a balanced naïveté and optimism, making it very odd to empathize with him. We understand why he makes these choices; it’s in living with them that makes The Big Picture shine.
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