Payback time, a la the French
From Alexander Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” through Francois Truffaut’s version of “The Bride Wore Black,” no one has understood the old proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold as well as the French. Now, in “The Page Turner,” comes perhaps the iciest version of delayed vengeance yet.
Written and directed by Denis Dercourt, a former symphony viola player, “The Page Turner” is an impeccably made psychological melodrama. It’s a story of destruction, dependence and betrayal set not only in the world of classical music but in the French culture of politeness where form and decorum are everything.
Yet though this film is as formal and predetermined as a carved palace of ice, it builds interest through the strong performances of its pair of costars, the veteran Catherine Frot and relative newcomer Deborah Francois.
Both actresses were nominated for Cesars, the French version of the Oscars, and the way they play off each other is so powerful that director Dercourt says he tried to have them in the same frame as much as possible, “like a cage in which two wild animals engage in extraordinary combat.”
Before these women appear, we meet a very serious and highly strung young pianist of 10 or 12 named Melanie (Julie Richalet). The only child in a working-class family -- her parents run a butcher shop -- Melanie is about to take a crucial conservancy entrance exam, but her mother is not worried. “I know my daughter,” she says, adding, in words that echo throughout the film, “whatever she decides she can do.”
It is at the exam that fate, in the form of celebrated concert pianist Ariane Fouchecourt (Frot), takes a hand. A member of the conservancy jury, she acts with an abrupt thoughtlessness that fatally disrupts the audition. A look from the young girl tells us that this is an incident she will never forget.
Cut to some 10 years later, as Melanie, who gave up the piano after the exam, is going to work as an intern at a firm run by a successful lawyer (Pascal Greggory). Now played by Francois (excellent as the young mother in the Dardennes brothers’ “L’Enfant”), Melanie is a meticulously turned-out young woman, elegant and precise but with an air of watchfulness, even calculation, that no one seems to notice.
Because “The Page Turner” is a melodrama, that successful lawyer turns out to be the husband of Fouchecourt, still a well-known pianist but, ironically, someone whom a traffic accident has left more psychologically fragile than the last time we saw her.
It is only a matter of time and happenstance until Melanie insinuates herself into the Fouchecourt family, which includes a young son. She even ends up as Ariane’s page turner, the person our pianist counts on for support when she is at her most vulnerable.
As Melanie begins her spider-and-fly games with the family, “The Page Turner” builds up a sinister kind of suspense. For one thing, though we know that Melanie is likely up to no good, we don’t know exactly what the details of her plans are or how successful she will be in carrying them out.
More insidious still, “The Page Turner” subtly twists the knife as it involves us in Melanie’s schemes. Because we have seen her mistreated, we are inclined to be sympathetic to the young woman’s designs, but her manner is so implacable we are horrified to realize exactly what we have let ourselves in for.
“The Page Turner.” MPAA rating: R for sexual content, nudity and language. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Exclusively at Laemmle’s One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena, (626) 744-1224; Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.