By Thomas Puhr.
Is the pen indeed mightier than the sword, as Bulwer-Lytton’s adage would have us believe? This ever-prescient question drives writer-director Nicolas Pariser’s 2015 feature debut, The Great Game (Le grand jeu; now on DVD from Icarus Films). At the film’s start, disillusioned French novelist Pierre Blum (Melvil Poupaud) certainly does not think so; after garnering some attention for his politically-charged first novel, he faded from the literary scene and quit writing altogether. When asked why he rejected such a promising career, he replies, “Let’s say I no longer saw the point. I had the feeling my writing wasn’t addressed to living beings. That it would only serve to crank out articles.” This resignation has likewise impacted his personal life; once a co-leader of a Leftist commune, he now lives in isolation and drifts from one rundown apartment to another.
Pierre’s self-imposed exile and cynicism are shattered when he meets Joseph Paskin (André Dussollier), who describes his governmental job as doing “favors” for powerful people. When Pierre asks what the favors are, the man’s response is even more cryptic: “Different sorts. It’s complicated.” Their meeting, it turns out, was no accident. Joseph quickly offers his new acquaintance a strange assignment (and a cheque for 20,000 euros): to ghost write an anonymous political tract that calls for Leftist insurrection against the French Minister. That a government official would fund such a project appears self-defeating, but we soon find that our protagonist’s task is but a cog in a much larger conspiracy concocted by his new employer.
The story arc can be divided into three distinct (and varyingly successful) acts. Its opening third, which resembles a le Carré-esque political thriller, follows Pierre and Joseph as they execute their plan. These expository scenes are the stuff of classic noir, as the partners rendezvous in dimly-lit bars and smoke cigarettes. The midsection is set at the aforementioned commune, wherein Pierre takes refuge after – spoiler alert! – the conspiracy backfires and his life is endangered. The final third relocates the action to England, where Pierre has been sent for asylum; his life in exile has come full circle. Unfortunately, these final scenes are the film’s most disappointing. A climactic foot chase, for instance, lacks any noteworthy style or suspense.
Although Pariser loses his footing in the last act, the film is worth viewing for the commune scenes. It is during these moments that he explores some of the story’s most interesting and complex issues. The small community’s members throw around references to Marx and Foucault and criticize Pierre’s bourgeois lifestyle, but they are by no means living in the utopia they desire. They are quick to reprimand their new guest for abandoning politics in favor of anonymity, without realizing that they are guilty of the exact same obliviousness. We learn, for example, that they refuse to watch television or read any newspapers: “We don’t know who’s president,” an activist half-jokes, as if their collective ignorance befits pride. Most ironically, they are inspired to dabble in revolutionary action because of Pierre’s book, unaware of the text’s devious origins.
This midsection is also the film’s most emotionally engaging, as Pierre finds himself seeking help from the very people he betrayed. To complicate things further, he falls in love with one of the activists, Laura Haydon (Clémence Poésy). Instead of focusing on sexual tension, however, Pariser allows the couple to seduce one another with ideas. In one remarkable conversation that lasts nearly ten minutes, the two discuss anthropology, memory, time, what it means to live a good life, and, yes, love. Laura sees right through his self-loathing façade: “I think women left you because they didn’t trust you,” she tells him. “Your problem isn’t inaction, it’s that you seem so detached. Except from your own irony.” As if to emphasize their relationship’s intellectual basis, Pariser ends the scene when Laura rejects Pierre’s rather awkward attempt to kiss her. Their conversation sets the stage for what could have been a fascinating dynamic, but subsequent scenes do not live up to this potential.
Even so, Pariser’s message is enticingly ambiguous. On the one hand, he seems to endorse political engagement over inaction; all of Pierre’s attempts to live in exile from a messy world fail. On the other hand, certain characters’ terrible fates offer a bitter suggestion: The conspiracy, though meticulously plotted, led to little more than a couple of newspaper articles and books which will quickly be forgotten by the public (that is, if they even notice in the first place). Ultimately, Pierre (and perhaps Pariser) remains skeptical toward modern literature’s ability to instigate genuine sociopolitical change. Although The Great Game is not as ambitious as other French political thrillers of late (2016’s shocking Nocturama comes to mind), its willingness to seriously tackle this bleak possibility makes it worth seeking out.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.