Something is wrong when you start thinking of potential social media memes in the middle of a “serious” thriller. I mean, they’ll be funny memes for cinephile fans, but it’s likely not what legendary filmmaker Roman Polanski was going for. That’s the immediate takeaway from Polanski’s latest, Based on a True Story, the final film to screen at the 70th Festival de Cannes.
The 84-year-old auteur co-wrote True Story with celebrated French filmmaker Olivier Assayas (Personal Shopper, The Clouds of Sils Maria) and in hindsight that might not have been the best mix. Assayas’ most recent movies have been masterworks of subtle and at times ghostly atmosphere. Polanski arguably hasn’t worked in that style in decades and, sadly, it shows.
Delphine (Emmanuelle Seigner) is a well-known author burnt out after the rapturous reception of her most recent novel. She runs into a fan, L. short for “Elle” (Eva Green), after one of her book signings. They hit it off as Delphine is entranced by this somewhat younger woman’s passionate interest in her. L. insists she’s a ghost writer tackling autobiographies for celebrities or notable figures who simply can’t do it themselves (this is never proven but Delphine buys it hook, line and sinker). At the same time L. enters Delphine’s life the author starts to receive hand written notes from someone claiming she stole their life story for that previously mentioned blockbuster book. This puts Delphine on edge even as her publisher is anxious for her to commit to her next release.
Almost immediately, L. also seems conveniently too embedded in Delphine’s life. She’s randomly living in an apartment just across the street and eager to help her work on her next novel or even just make dinner. For the audience L.’s actions blatantly cross the line from acquaintance to friend to something more nefarious in almost an instant and it’s hard to fathom how Delphine can’t see how strange it all is. Sure, L. is sexy as hell (those short skirts are a choice), but is Delphine, a mother of two grown children, entranced over the idea of a sexual liaison? If so Polanski’s tease isn’t enough to justify Delphine’s actions.
Don’t worry, it gets worse.
While checking her phone at the top of the stairs of her apartment Delphine slips, takes a tumble and ends up breaking her leg (such a ludicrous set up the audience I screened it with burst out laughing). She decides to recover in her home in the country while catching up on that new project. And, of course, she takes up L.’s offer to accompany her and that’s when things really go off the rails. During their trip L. starts opening up to Delphine about the recent tragedy in her life, a story she’d only alluded to earlier. It’s a tale Green conveys with an obvious wink that her character is completely making it up on the spot (again, unintentional laughter). Obviously, Delphine is mesmerized and starts making notes to – you guessed it – steal the storyline for her new book. The rest of the film involves rat poison, a hilarious dream sequence where Delphine’s cast explodes (a future meme!), a goofy fall into a muddy ditch and an ending where almost nothing is resolved or explained beyond the fact Delphine gets a stylish makeover.
Polanski reunites with longtime muse Seigner for the fifth time and as strange as it might sound he simply does her no favors by pairing her with Green. The Casino Royale breakout simply blows Seigner off the screen in every scene they are in together. Granted, Green is one of the most charismatic screen presences of her generation and the passivity of Seigner’s character doesn’t help, but it makes her Delphine appear somewhat basic as the film goes on. Why exactly would anyone care about a story about such a boring, clueless writer who can’t stop herself from stealing other people’s stories? The plot is has some obvious tangential elements of Polanski’s own far superior Ghost Writer, Stephen King’s Misery and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? but something clearly got lost from Assayas and Polanski’s screenplay to the screen.
The only redeeming aspect of the picture is, without question, Green who you could watch change a light bulb, then rewind it, watch it again and still be blown away. And, of course, the promise of possible memes that at least gives Polanski some modern day relevancy. Here’s hoping after his last two disappointing endeavors, Venus in Fur and Carnage, that True Story doesn’t become his swan song.
Based on a True Story will be released by Sony Pictures Classics sometime this year.