Only a very few films in the vast film noir tradition begin with a sleazy, morally indifferent anti-hero (usually a private detective) and keep him that way, right to the bitter end. In Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955), the protagonist grows less likeable with every scene. In Altman's The Long Goodbye (1972), he grows more confused. In Penn's Night Moves (1975), he becomes more ineffectual.
Conventionally, however, the arc of the detective hero is from cool detachment to hot involvement – and this is as true of Humphrey Bogart yesterday as of Daniel Auteuil today, in the fine British-French thriller, The Lost Son.
Xavier (Auteuil) kills time with divorce cases, and hangs out platonically with a high-class prostitute, Nathalie (Marianne Denicourt). A wealthy and snobbish family, into which his old police mate, Carlos (Ciaran Hinds), has married, hires Xavier to find a wayward son.
Soon he is picking up clues about a particularly sordid and reprehensible underworld – an illicit paedophile ring. The deeper into this scene that Xavier sinks himself, the more compelling his hitherto dormant moral conscience becomes – and the more agonising his doubt as to whether this evil can ever be erased.
The Lost Son, well directed by Chris Menges (A World Apart, 1988), has a pleasingly solid construction, and not only plot-wise. The drama is a series of clever variations on two themes.
The first theme concerns the terms business and pleasure, words which are spoken often by various characters. Business stands for what can be bought and sold, while pleasure relates to the private values of individuals – but of course, in this underworld, the two become inextricably and amorally confused.
The second theme is familiar from such noir exercises as Bill Bennett's Kiss or Kill (1997): trust and its uncertainties, the question of how much anyone really knows about those seemingly closest to them. "What else don't I know about you?" is a throwaway but key line in this movie.
As in many mystery-thrillers, sometimes the burdensome mechanics of the plot – with the necessary trail of artful red herrings – overwhelm the seriousness of these themes. For instance, the indication early on that Xavier feels himself to be somehow "part of" the sexually decadent underground is rather forced and unconvincing.
But this is, for the most part, a superior contemporary film noir, possessing a cinematic sharpness and savvy that raises it above even the best of 'quality' television's crime dramas.
MORE Menges: CrissCross
© Adrian Martin November 1999