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The Serpent
cast: Olga Kurylenko, Yvan Attal, Clovis Cornillac, Pierre Richard, and Simon Abkarian

director: Eric Barbier

117 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail
[released 3 March]

RATING: 6/10
reviewed by Barbara Davies
Vincent Mandel (Yvan Attal) has a rich and beautiful wife, two loving kids, a luxurious home, and a sexy job as a fashion photographer. He's also messed it all up, though we're never told exactly how. So when The Serpent opens, he's in the middle of an antagonistic custody battle, and his German wife Hélène (Minna Haapkyla) is planning to return to Munich, taking the kids with her.

If Vincent thought his life sucked already, he's about to learn better. Joseph Plender (Clovis Cornillac), ruthless ex-foreign legionnaire turned crooked private eye, and proud owner of a serpent tattoo, is about to smash Vincent's comfortable life to smithereens. The two men were in the same class at school, but weren't exactly friends. When they were 13, Vincent was partly responsible for a traumatic event that ruined Plender's life. Now Plender's back, enraged by a recent and very personal loss, and the beautiful, pouting Sofia Kipiani (Olga Kurylenko) is going to help him get his revenge.

Blackmail escalates into something much more terrifying as, in the grand tradition of noir, everything Vincent does to extract himself from his enemy's grip only makes matters worse. Soon Vincent's only ally, lawyer Sam Koskas (Simon Abkarian) is dead, and an increasingly desperate Vincent is on the run from the police. Only a fellow victim of Plender's, deaf real-estate lawyer Cendras (Pierre Richard), can help Vincent clear his name, but the timid Cendras doesn't want to get involved. Meanwhile a Machiavellian Plender is worming his way into the affections of Vincent's vulnerable and totally unsuspecting family...

Eric Barbier adapted this French revenge thriller from Ted (Get Carter) Lewis' novel Plender but re-jigged the plot and characters, cut the flashbacks, and relocated it from England to France. It's essentially a two-hander, with Attal (Munich, The Interpreter) and Cornillac (Close-Up) sharing equal billing and screen-time as protagonist and antagonist. Unfortunately, early scenes involving a pet songbird, meant, presumably, to humorously establish Vincent as a loving and put upon family man, misfire and fail to engage audience sympathy, making it hard to care about what happens to him later.

It doesn't help that for the first two thirds of the film the protagonist is largely passive - even Attal, when interviewed, describes his character as "a middle-class coward." Fortunately, Cornillac's leather-clad presence and air of brooding menace keep up the interest level until Vincent's worm turns at last. And for the film's final third, Barbier ratchets up the suspense and action satisfyingly as Vincent finds a chink in Plender's armour and starts to fight back.

An international cast provides solid support for the two French leads. Abkarian (Casino Royale) brings authority and an expensive coat to the role of Vincent's divorce lawyer. Richard, a veteran of farce, apparently, brings to life the sketchy role of a timid, elderly philanderer with a dicky heart - though why do heart problem sufferers always have to drop their pills at the vital moment? Finnish Haapkyla, here playing a German, provides a fragile, upmarket, cool contrast to the darker, slightly sluttish, but always-luminous Ukrainian Kurylenko (Hitman), who may only be on screen for half an hour but makes every moment count. Given that Kurylenko has now been announced as the Bond girl in 'Quantum Of Solace', The Serpent's promoters are understandably trumpeting her presence.

DVD extras: American English subtitles are provided, plus the option to choose surround sound. A 26-minute Making Of The Serpent documentary explores with the cast and crew the characters and plot, locations and set d�cor, stunts and fights, the music score, and the process of filming. For 16 minutes, director Eric Barbier answers questions about his career, the popularity of French thrillers worldwide, his casting choices, and whether he would like to work in the United States. By contrast, producer Eric Jehelmann is only allowed five minutes to talk about his involvement in The Serpent, French thrillers, and targeting a French audience. Finally, in her seven-minute interview, Olga Kurylenko talks in English (the only interviewee to do so), about, among other things: her character Sofia, fellow members of the cast, and whether she found it hard wearing nothing but a length of rope. A 90-second theatrical trailer is also included.

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