Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Inner Circle (2009)

Director: Laurent Tuel                                    Writer: Laurent Tuel & Simon Moutairou
Film Score: Alain Kremski                              Cinematography: Laurent Machuel
Starring: Jean Reno, Gaspard Ulliel, Vahina Giocante and Sami Bouajila

During the First World War, with the attention of the world elsewhere, Turkey took the opportunity to commit genocide against Armenia and many of those refugees chose to immigrate to France and assimilate into that society. As with any ethnic group immigrating anywhere, some chose criminal enterprises to accelerate their access to a more successful life. This film is about one such family, the Malakian clan, with Jean Reno at its head. The title of the film, The Inner Circle (Le premier cercle), comes from the idea inherent in any family run criminal enterprise, that the family members comprise the inner circle. They run the business and the rest of the organization forms concentric rings that extend out from there. The screenplay concerns one of that inner circle, Gaspard Ulliel, who wants to leave the family’s criminal enterprise and be on his own, with Vahina Giocante, living a small, quiet life running a bed and breakfast. As one would imagine, however, it won’t be that simple to achieve.

The credits open with Gaspard Ulliel and Isaac Sherry chasing down a Ferrari to a gas station. There Ulliel bumps into the rear end, angering the driver, and while they are arguing Sherry takes off in the car while Ulliel follows. It is a theft, and when Ulliel feels he hasn’t received enough money from his father Jean Reno, the family head tells him they are quitting cars and going into something bigger. That turns out to be a heist where Ulliel runs down a witness and, hesitating to shoot him, Reno does the job for him. Reno has been grooming Ulliel, after the death of his oldest son, to take over the family business, but Reno doesn’t know he wants to quit. Meanwhile, police detective Sami Bouajila has made it his life’s work to take down the Malakian family after his friend died in the same shootout that killed Reno’s son. His way in is through Vahina Giocante, who doesn’t know she’s being watched and bugged. She’s a nurse to Ulliel’s grandmother and no one in the family knows about his relationship with her, and she doesn’t even know what he does for a living.

It’s a little mystifying why this film isn’t more popular. The chief complaint seems to be that the clichés don’t go anywhere new. True, every single plot device has been done before countless times. Mafia films are nothing new. To me, however, the piece isn’t about the plot. It’s character driven, and it’s the actors who make the film so interesting. Of course Jean Reno is an icon. Simply his presence in a film bodes well. His role here is subdued, with the boss’s knowingness and experience he doesn’t have to do or say much to get his point across. And his point is to do everything to leave a strong organization to his son. Gaspard Ulliel is also terrific as the disenchanted son, strong in word but ambivalent in action about breaking away from Reno. Vahina Giocante is, of course, beautiful and innocent and willing to risk everything to be with Ulliel. The other family member is Isaac Sherry, who must decide between his loyalty to Ulliel or Reno. Sami Bouajila first came to my attention as one of the four leads in Jamel Debbouze’s Indigénes from three years earlier. He’s terrific here as the intense and frustrated detective who can’t manage to get a break in the case.

The visual style is quite distinctive, with director Laurent Tuel’s camera emphasizing close ups, whether people or objects, in establishing shots before sliding off to capture more of the scene. The color palate is very warm as well, with yellows and oranges predominating, even in the cool evenings where a warming green undertone is added to the blues and blacks. Rather than the bombastic nature of most American gangster films this is a quiet picture, great in every sense of the European tradition of realism. It was never intended to be a gangster film and the lame American title, The Ultimate Heist, does a gross disservice to the story. This is a story of a crime family, with stock characters and plot devices, not a caper film. It is the emotional realism that is the point, and an emphasis on the ambiguity that infuses the relationships of the characters with each other. The actors are what we are there to see, and the way that they work together within those constraints are the real draw of the film. The Inner Circle is an engaging crime drama, with emphasis on the drama and, with the right understanding going in, can be a tremendously rewarding cinematic experience.

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