Arts & Entertainment

'Tell No One'

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Tell everyone about "Tell No One." Not just because this is a top-notch thriller so twisty you may forget to breathe, but because for a long time it looked like you wouldn't be able to tell anyone at all.

For even though "Tell No One" was a top performer in its native France (where it won four Cesars, the French Oscars, and was nominated for five more) as well as a box office success all across Europe, this was a film that nearly didn't get any kind of American theatrical distribution.

Even when you added major French-speaking actors such as Nathalie Baye, Jean Rochefort, Kristin Scott Thomas and Marie-Josée Croze as well as a script based on a novel by bestselling American suspense writer Harlan Coben, the wild complexities of "Tell No One's" plot apparently scared off all the major specialty distributors. Finally, two years after its French success, a tiny but intrepid Chicago-based company called Music Box Films has brought this assured film to theaters.

The confidence of director Guillaume Canet (who co-wrote the script with Philippe Lefebvre) is surprising not just because of his age -- at 33, he was the youngest to win the best director Cesar -- but because this is only his second time directing, after an acting career that includes playing the French traveler in Danny Boyle's "The Beach," plus a key cameo here.

Coben's novel had been reportedly set up at one of the majors with Keanu Reeves to star but after that deal fell apart, Canet acquired the rights from the author in part because he passionately understood Coben's belief that his novel had the potential to be not just an expert thriller but a despairing love story as well.

"Tell No One" starts with the most happy and relaxed scene of the entire film, a classically French outdoor dinner in the country where a group of friends and family sits around sharing wine, food and each other's company.

But under that supremely pleasant scene, the director has chosen to play Otis Redding's version of "For Your Precious Love," a deeply felt plea for eternal love that hauntingly undercuts that mood. "Tell No One," in fact, excels at using music to create atmosphere and the film's evocative electric guitar score, improvised and recorded by Matthieu Chedid while watching the picture his first and only time, went on to win the Cesar for best music written for a film.

"Tell No One's" protagonist is pediatrician Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet). He is at the dinner with his wife, Margot (Croze, last seen here in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"). We soon find out they have been childhood sweethearts, in love for forever.

After a chilling segment, best experienced and not read about, the film cuts to Paris eight years later, to today. Alexandre, now a widower, is revealed to be an especially empathetic doctor, someone whose patients can sense he understands their pain because he has had so much of his own. In fact, we soon see that Alexandre is still a wreck about the brutal murder of his wife.

Then one day the impossible happens: Alexandre receives an anonymous e-mail along with a video that astonishes him with the possibility that his wife may, in fact, still be alive. "Tell no one," the message ends. "We're being watched." Which turns out to be quite an understatement.

For as Alexandre sets about trying to figure out who the message is from and what it means, two additional plot lines simultaneously kick in. A shadowy group of unknown provenance begins to closely monitor his actions, and the suspicious police, prodded by new evidence, decide he may be his wife's murderer. Intensely pursued by both groups, Alexandre begins to live out the kind of nightmare in broad daylight that would make Alfred Hitchcock envious.

Reasons why "Tell No One" is so effective start with its actors, gifted performers who effortlessly add weight and humanity to this complex tale. Especially good is the veteran Cluzet, who's talked of "using all the experience I accumulated playing thankless supporting roles" to win the best actor Cesar for his impeccable work as the beleaguered Alexandre. "François doesn't act," director Canet has said, "he lives things," and his ability to play all the emotional elements of his role is critical.

Also important to the film's success is its decision to, in effect, tease us with information by doling it out gradually, either through judicious flashbacks or via the technique of introducing people on screen -- like that shadowy group -- before we are told exactly who they are. When the film's stream of small surprises and revelations are added in, an audience's willingness to pay close attention to what's going on is essential to enjoyment.

Canet has also made a point of setting his film not in the tourist Paris but in more of the real thing than we usually get to see, including a daunting chase across the city's encircling freeway, the Périphérique, as well as a cameo by Coben as a man in a black T-shirt on a train platform.

It can't be denied that "Tell No One" is heavy on coincidence, has a couple of brief scenes of disturbing violence and has plot elements of such intricacy you may need to hash them over on the way home. Author Coben, who says he is a fan of "stories that move you, that grab hold of your heart and do not let it go," has gotten a film that does exactly that.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

"Tell No One." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes. Playing at the Landmark, 10850 Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8233; Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; Laemmle's Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811; Edwards Westpark 8, 3755 Alton Parkway, Irvine, (949) 622-8609; Regency Rancho Niguel 8, 25471 Rancho Niguel Road, Laguna Niguel, (949) 831-4359.

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