While introducing himself, struggling, middle-aged actor Jean Renault (François Damiens) throws in “like the car” in an attempt to avoid the wide eyes of those thinking they’ve just met Jean Reno (of “Léon: The Professional”), but it’s often too late and with this comparison in mind, Renault appears all the more insignificant. That doesn’t stop him from assuming the role of a world-famous movie star, though. “That’s why you work in TV!” he barks at a director in one of the few acting gigs he’s able to land with his reputation as a pain in the ass.
Out of money and with a couple of kids to support, Renault accepts an offbeat job playing the victim in a court-mandated homicide reenactment. He heads to Megève, a small ski resort town in the French Alps, and assumes the roles of the deceased in a year-old case with a confessed killer. But when he butts heads with the attractive, first-time magistrate (Géraldine Nakache) over the details of the case, his obsessive committal to the role finds Renault overturning new clues that suggest alternative motives.
Damiens, a Belgian comic, hones in on a type of egomaniacal, faux-modest actor anyone who has worked in show business will find hilarious. He’s determined to make light of the situation, consistently referring to the reenactment as a “shoot” despite the total lack of a camera. It’s a bit part, but one typically used for a one-off scene in a comedy – the “hot-headed actor.” Damiens pulls out the laughs of portraying a guy hopelessly up his own ass, but does so with more desperation than self-righteousness. This makes his character completely watchable, and never annoying. His attitude comes from a refusal to accept or admit failure, so as he becomes our actor-turned-amateur-detective, we end up rooting for him despite his initially repulsive attitude.
Placing a strong comedic actor in a thriller is a great set-up for a fun film, but director Jean-Paul Salomé is telling the wrong story in “Playing Dead.” In a murder mystery, the reveal comes in the last ten percent of the story, but accounts for more like fifty percent of our satisfaction in experiencing it. Salomé takes the time to lay the groundwork – inserting clues and introducing various characters as suspects, only to lead to an ultimately disappointing resolution.
There’s no glaring flaws in the production, and for that reason many will find “Playing Dead” to be a fine film, but the genre can do far more. A trip into the snowy mountains late at night with someone Renault suspects is a murderer yields a fraction of the suspense it should. You’ll find a more successful take on the creepy, small-town-with-a-secret atmosphere in Danish thriller “Terribly Happy;” a more intriguing murder-mystery farce in “Hot Fuzz.”Continue Reading Issue #14
1 hr. 44 min.
François Damiens, Géraldine Nakache, Lucien Jean-Baptiste, Anne Le Ny, Jean-Marie Winling, Kévin Azaïs,