Scribe (La mécanique de l’ombre) movie review: all tapped out

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Scribe red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

This would-be faux-70s paranoid thriller piles on too-obvious intrigue and embarrassing clichés, and lacks suspense, thrills, and a protagonist to care about.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Unemployed accountant Duval (François Cluzet) takes a mysterious job with mysterious Clément (Denis Podalydès) that comes about after a mysterious late-night phone call and a mysterious Saturday-morning job interview (in a completely unmysteriously deserted Parisian business district, because it’s the weekend, but there’s nothing odd about that, nosirree). The job — transcribing recordings of conversations from tapped phones — comes with mysterious strict instructions about confidentiality and secrecy and mysteriously bizarre instructions about (among other things) the appropriate timing of the opening and closing of the blinds in the near-empty apartment he’ll be working in.

Such mysterious. Many intrigue.
Such mysterious. Many intrigue.tweet

Scribe piles on too-obvious intrigue, and yet Duval is blandly unconcerned as he begins to work. And when the conversations he’s listening in on turn from the banal stuff of everyday life to things sinister, something about a hostage situation that’s been in the news and how it might be used to influence an upcoming election? Duval remains entirely unmoved. And when newspaper headlines start to reflect nefarious actions clearly taken by his employer? Duval’s feeble attempt to leave the job is quickly undermined: he is a man who lets himself get pushed around so easily that it’s almost laughably impossible to take him at face value,tweet or to muster much sympathy for him… and the film doesn’t really work unless we’re on Duval’s side.

With his first feature, French writer (with Yann Gozlan) and director Thomas Kruithof clearly wants to evoke 70s paranoid thrillers such as The Conversation: Clément doesn’t trust digital, so it’s all magnetic tape and typewriters for Duval, and the film itself is suffused in a drab palette of grays and mustards. There’s tons of dingy visual style here, sure, but Kruithof doesn’t know quite how to build suspense or thrills — there’s only one moment that is surprising, and then only mildly so,tweet and there’s a whopper of a clichéd plot turn, a trope that deserves to die in 21st-century storytelling (and which filmmakers should by this point be embarrassed to deploy). The political stuff and the hostage thing are little more than thematic macguffins: we never quite learn what they’re all about, so whatever power the film is going to have is all on Duval. And he is a blob of nothing.

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