The serious espionage romance is something of an endangered subgenre. Alfred Hitchcock set the bar impossibly high 67 years ago with Notorious, but that’s no excuse for not trying. These days, the form has somehow been eaten up by the action rom-com, specifically that tiresome sub-subgenre in which clueless women find themselves hitched to dashing secret agents (True Lies, Knight and Day, Killers, This Means War) and end up ducking and squealing and (inevitably) getting kidnapped.
The last example of pure espionage romance I can think of – unsullied by crazy stunts or explosions – was Duplicity (2009), in which Julia Roberts and Clive Owen flashed their dazzling dental work at each other, exchanging witty dialogue as they jet-setted from Rome to Manhattan to Dubai, which was all very shiny and attractive till the plot kicked in and proved so humdrum, so unworthy of these characters, that I couldn’t even remember what it was, and had to look it up on imdb just now. What’s at stake in Duplicity is the secret formula for a cure for baldness. Yes, we all know it’s a McGuffin, and I’m sure if my hair were falling out I would be thinking differently, but excuse me for not finding that very interesting. Or at the very least it belongs in a film more farcical than this one.
But behold Möbius, in which what’s at stake is pretty much Western civilisation, and not in a Get Smart way. Beyond a few minor chuckles at the expense of a couple of minor characters, Éric Rochant’s film dispenses with laughs altogether. It is too glossy and its characters too sexy and good-looking to slot into the Dirty Realist school of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, or even The Ipcress File, but it has been a long time since we have seen spying taken this seriously. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Good Shepherd, certainly, but we’re talking espionage romance here, which is altogether a different animal.
Scarcely have we been introduced to Alice (Cécile de France), trader at a Russian bank in Monaco, than she’s doing something unconscionable to the Spanish stock market. My brain checked out at the word “derivatives”, but her casual-verging-on-sadistic manner is enough to convince you that Alice is a wizard in her field, so it’s not surprising when a Russian plutocrat called Rotovski (Tim Roth) decides he wants her to work for him. Unknown to Alice, a Russian spy called Moïse (Jean Dujardin) has been ordered to keep tabs on her by his boss at the FSB, successors to the KGB, as a way of getting to Rotovski. But of course, Rotovski is not the sort of man you want to cross.
And that’s really all you need to know about the plot, except that it’s complicated, and doesn’t bother to spell everything out for you, so you’re left constantly trying to catch up and join up the dots, which I always like in a thriller because it hoodwinks me into thinking it’s smarter than I am, even when it isn’t. This is the sort of drama in which everybody seems to have a secret identity or a hidden agenda, the CIA are involved (hello there, Wendell Pierce!) and Alice and Moïse end up going to bed together – you can gather that much from the trailer.
Dujardin’s Frenchness is justified by a throwaway line of exposition (just as Jean-Claude Van Damme’s accent was always explained in his English language films by his characters having been brought up by French nuns, or uncles in the Bayou) while Roth’s perfect English also gets an explanation. The dialogue is in French, English and Russian, and to begin with, I was a little confused by Dujardin, Belgian actress Émilie Dequenne and British actor Roth all playing Russians; I couldn’t begin to tell you how convincing their Russian was, or whether Dujardin and Dequenne were speaking French with Russian accents. But the babel of languages (I saw it with subtitles in French and Flemish and got confused about which language I was supposed to be reading at any given moment, which only added to the multilingual fun) seemed to play into the smoke and mirrors world of espionage.
There are lovely views of Monaco, which seems to be swarming with rich Russians, and there’s a swanky nightclub where the dancers strip naked and seemed to be about to perform some sort of artistic sex act before we’re whisked away to another venue. De France and Dujardin make love quite a lot in a breathy way that would get this called an “erotic thriller” if we were in Hollywood, though in a European co-production (France-Belgo-Russian), it’s pretty much business as usual.
Rochant, who has been operating under the radar of anglophone markets since making a splash with his 1989 feature debut Un monde sans pitié, has previously directed a spy thriller (Les patriotes) and an action movie (Total Western), neither of which I have seen. Möbius is not an action movie – one hour passes before the first hint of physical argy-bargy, though there’s plenty of tailing and bugging and people looking menacing, and I was too busy wondering what was going on inside the characters’ heads to get bored. The film’s denouement doesn’t really deliver on its set-up (a Hollywood movie would tie up the loose ends with at least one more action scene) but its trump card is a brace of effortless star performances from two of francophone cinema’s (de France, like Dequenne, is Belgian) most bankable talents. You can’t help rooting for them, even when they’re doing questionable things.
De France’s niceness in The Kid with a Bike has already been tempered by her performances in films like Haute Tension or Mesrine: Killer Instinct in an eclectic CV, but it’s nice to see her playing someone a little ambiguous, a little more femme fatale than usual. But while her wardrobe is never less than chic, I wish she’d got to wear some killer frocks – after all, this is a subgenre that is all about appearances, so I really do think the film slips up there.
Dujardin, in his second outing since The Artist, is in a very different register from his Oscar-winning performance. Though best known in France for his comedic work (I first saw him in the popular TV series of comic vignettes Un gars, une fille, which ran from 1999 to 2003) he does have previous form in straight drama, namely Nicolas Boukhrief’s excellent thriller Le convoyeur (2004) and Contre-enquête (2007). The role of Moïse (French for “Moses”, incidentally) requires him to exercise charm, but also a kind of sweaty desperation and a fair amount of unshaven vodka-swigging, which he does with aplomb. Within the world of the film, it is entirely credible that Alice should fall for him after merely exchanging glances across a crowded room – I would fall for him too – though I’m not sure I’d ever buy him as Russian, with or without expository dialogue. Let’s face it, if all Russian spies were this sexy the CIA, MI6 and everyone else might as well throw in the towel right now.
And here’s an episode of the TV series Un gars, une fille:
MORE FILM NOTES:
- February 10th…. a long time ago, Soviets exchange American for captured Russian spy (palookavillepost.com)
- “Oh putain!” It’s Jean Dujardin (thefilmexperience.net)
- David Lynch working on New Script, Cast in Daughter’s Thriller ‘A Fall From Grace’ (slashfilm.com)
- Alexander Litvinenko: Poisoned Russian spy’s widow fears for justice (metro.co.uk)
- Espionage: Honest-to-Badness (time.com)