‘The Big Picture’ is both gripping and shapeless

Paul (Romain Duris) takes a dead man’s identity and heads to Croatia in “The Big Picture.”
Paul (Romain Duris) takes a dead man’s identity and heads to Croatia in “The Big Picture.” (Nicolas Guiraud)
Nicolas Guiraud

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‘The Big Picture” plugs into the old fantasy of shucking a cramped, unhappy existence and reinventing yourself under another man’s name. Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, and the movies made from them, plow this field, as does Antonioni’s ghostly “The Passenger,” made with Jack Nicholson in 1975. The new film nods to them while going its own way. Based on a 1997 novel of the same title by Douglas Kennedy, it relocates the action from America to Paris and Eastern Europe, where identities can seem as hazy as international borders. The film’s French title, translated as “The Man Who Wanted to Live His Life,” is closer to the point as well.

The star, Romain Duris (“The Beat That My Heart Skipped”), is handsome in a shifty way, with feral teeth and eyes always looking for the nearest exit. His character, Paul Exben, is a gifted photographer who has sold his soul for the security of a law career and a house in the suburbs. He thinks his life is working, but it’s not; his writer wife (Marina Foïs) has tired of motherhood and her husband’s repressed unhappiness and is having an affair with a local layabout (Eric Ruf). Paranoia starts to ruffle Paul’s sleek exterior.

Push comes to shove — literally — and there’s an accidental crime that opens the door to a new life. Paul takes the identity of a dead man and kills off his old self, heading into the wild blue yonder of Croatia to pursue his photographic dreams. The central irony of “The Big Picture,” and it’s a ripe one, is that fame descends on the hero at the one moment he needs to be invisible.

As crafted by director Eric Lartigau and a raft of writers, the movie feels loose and unpredictable. You’re never sure where Paul or the story is going, and while that makes “The Big Picture” unexpectedly gripping for much of its running time, the shapelessness ultimately wins out. The final act, aboard a ship bound for Brazil, plays like a setup for a climax that never comes. The film ends with a perplexed sigh.

But Duris is excellent, his hair and eyes growing wilder with each step of the journey, and he has solid support: wily old Niels Arestrup as a newspaper editor and drinking companion, Branka Katic as Paul’s wary new romantic interest, Catherine Denueve in a too-brief turn as his Paris boss. (It’s possible that French law decrees the actress be in every movie shot in the City of Light, as befits a civic monument.) Before it vanishes unsatisfyingly into the night, “The Big Picture” tantalizes its hero and us with the possibilities and pitfalls of escape. Be careful of disappearing, it warns, because you might have to finish the job.