(Eric Styles, Canada/France/Luxembourg/UK, 2003)


Tempo is a strange little thriller that, if mentioned at all, is typically bundled into the decade of Melanie Griffith’s decline as an actor, appearing in a string of B grade productions (but also – let’s not forget – Larry Clark’s great Another Day in Paradise, 1998). It deserves a bit more attention than that.


The beginning is not terribly promising. In one of those flash-forwards that looks awkwardly like an extended ‘coming attractions’ trailer, we are hurled into the daring dash through Paris streets of Jack (Hugh Dancy) and his two passengers, Sarah (Griffith) and Jenny (Rachael Leigh Cook). Another car gives chase (I guess this is where the meaningless ‘tempo’ of the title comes from), bullets shatter the back window, the women scream and the guy looks nervous, too. All this is blended with streaky, slo-mo shots of neon street lights – a transition device that (like some poor premonition of the snow in Resnais’ sublime Coeurs, 2006) is, alas, to return again and again over the next 85 minutes.


Everything packaged around this movie suggests a Double Indemnity-template noir-style sex-triangle – older woman established in the rich-criminal world of Paris, young American tourist, vacillating ‘rent boy’ in the middle, the possibility of an easy jewellery heist – which would, logically, power along on the usual ronde of bluff, deceit, hidden plots, perversion, and the like. Certainly, Sarah’s nasty ex – not to mention Malcolm McDowell’s presence as a sauve Mr Big with a silent Asian partner – would seem to set that up. But almost none of these typical complications happen – and this is what makes Tempo somewhat captivating, rather than just another bad, cheap thriller that might as well be Australian in origin (like Bill Bennett’s worst, or Craig Lahiff’s Swerve [2012]).


Tempo is almost completely focused on the love problems of those three people in the car at the start. Sarah hides her criminal courier work from Jack; Jack hides his affair with Jenny from Sarah. He is genuinely drawn to both women. There are many teary scenes of all three players alone, in romantic agony; and just as many confrontations – even right at the end of that prolonged chase scene! – where Jack is begged to make his final choice: will it be double or nothing for this hyper-sentimental guy?


At every point that a genre-coached viewer expects a betrayal switch-up or clever revelation of behind-the-scenes scheming, it never comes – only the tears and the relationship conversations (and the occasional sex scene). I confess that I found this anti-genre structure of events quite compelling. And the credits contain a clue as to how the project got to be this way: two of the three credited writers are L.M. Kit Carson (of David Holzman's Diary/Jim McBride and Paris, Texas fame) and Jennifer Salt, whose fascinating career has taken her from the lead role as persecuted feminist in De Palma’s Sisters (1973) to the script adaptation of Eat Pray Love (2010).


Director Eric Styles is an intriguing figure whose low-profile (for standard-issue auteurists) career has spanned BBC documentary and drama, thrillers (True True Lie, 2006), fantasy (Tomb of the Dragon, 2013), a Noel Coward adaptation (Relative Values, 2000) and relationship comedy (Miss Conception, 2008). Tempo reminds us that, as in his curious but flawed debut feature Dreaming of Joseph Lees (1999), he is also drawn to melodrama as a form. And maybe there is just too little genuine romantic melodrama, these days, in the patented hardboiled manoeuvres of the crime-thriller genre. Tempo causes me to ponder this, and that’s not nothing.


MORE modern love: Three of Hearts, Reality Bites, Bodies, Rest and Motion

© Adrian Martin January 2013

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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