One delusion of conscientious moviegoing is that alertness has its rewards. Some plots just don't care how closely you watch them. Guillaume Canet's "Tell No One" certainly doesn't. At least twice during this juicy, preposterous murder-mystery, I found myself thinking, "But I was paying attention! Why doesn't this make any sense yet?"
Canet puts us through a wringer, although by the end we're in better shape than Dr. Alex Beck (Francois Cluzet), a pediatrician who sprints from clue to clue, desperate to figure out who's messing with his head.
Not long after we meet the doctor things turn grim. One night at his lake house, he's attacked and, apparently, left for dead in the water. His wife, Margot (Marie-Josée Croze), is killed. Eight years later, he's still bereft, and news that two buried bodies have just been discovered near the original crime scene casts another shadow over his life. Alex was a suspect the first time, and now the police are back with more insults for his injury. Someone's already been convicted of Margot's murder, but the police think this new case has his name written all over it. Alex maintains his innocence, but questions from eight years ago persist. Who anonymously called 9-1-1 that night? And how did he manage to climb out of the lake if he'd been beaten unconscious?
In the meantime, Alex has been receiving strange e-mails that appear as though they're from Margot. Should he obey their instructions? Like many French movies about men in crisis, Alex's inner council consists exclusively of women - Marina Hands as his gay horse-riding sister, Kristen Scott-Thomas as her testy French girlfriend, Florence Thomassin as a fashion photographer friend, and, scariest of all, Nathalie Baye as his piranha lawyer. Alex, nonetheless, manages to do his own thinking, which climaxes with his cutting short a patient visit by jumping out a window and leading Paris police on an exhausting foot chase whose absurd intermission takes place in a Dumpster.
That sequence is a brutal display of cardio. Bodies crash, cars collide, and Cluzet for the most part keeps his cool. Canet, who's given himself a small, pivotally nasty part, doesn't really bother pitching the film as an existential mystery - that may have been too French. It's less "Caché" than a highbrow Jason Statham picture with whiffs of "Vertigo" and "The Fugitive." At 52, Cluzet is just as handsome as Statham and a much more dynamic actor. He's never required to brood or wonder, and the lack of psychological weight gives his performance lean physical purpose.
"Tell No One" is actually at its most persuasive when it's on the run - in particular when Alex finds himself harbored by boys in the 'hood. Canet and Philippe Lefebvre, who also made 2002's "My Idol" together, adapted the film from one of the American crime novelist Harlan Coben's thrillers
The movie is drunk with its own flourishes - intrigue at horse stables; risible photo shoots; heinously dead women; an altruistic gangsta (Gilles Lellouche); the sort of inspector (fantastic François Berléand) who takes a break from the case to check in on his old mother and promote recycling; and the intimidating silky smoothness of Jean Rochefort, as a moneybags horse mogul, countered by the intimidating roughness of André Dussollier, as a cop.
These classy people are put to the trashiest ends, and, for the most part, it's a pleasure to see them rooting around in the garbage. The confusion "Tell No One" generates is another matter. But once the final character has put the last puzzle piece in place, courtesy of an epic explanation, a kind of relief sets in: Someone just needed to spell it all out. It does not entirely help. For me the letters still went something like: H-U-H. I couldn't tell anyone even if I tried.