“The Big Picture” — movie AND book

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This was another of the very enjoyable unheralded foreign movies that my theater shows.  “The Big Picture” is a suspense movie in French with subtitles, and I loved it.

Paul Exben (Romain Duris, The Beat That My Heart Skipped) has it all: he is partner in one of Paris’s most exclusive law firms with a big salary, a big house, a glamorous wife and two sons.

When he finds out that his wife, Sarah, is cheating on him with a local photographer, a rash of emotions provokes Paul into a fatal error. Standing over the corpse of his wife’s lover, Paul knows that his perfect life is gone for good. By assuming the dead man’s identity and fleeing for an isolated part of former Yugoslavia on the beautiful Adriatic coast, Paul gets another shot at being himself and, at last, seeing the big picture.

The action moves right along.  You are swept up in the story, which is plausibly told, and you are rooting for the sympathetic central character.  It is all done really well.  Of course, I loved seeing Paris and other French scenery, and the villages and towns of Montenegro (I think) were also very interesting.  In the early part of the movie, Catherine Deneuve appears as Paul’s business partner — other than being able to say that the movie had Catherine Deneuve in it, I am not sure why they bothered.  But, she was not awful — just kind of superfluous.   If someone unknown had been in the role, perhaps it would have been as small as the plot really dictated.

There is a lot more to the plot than the summary above.  He finds considerable complication once he does start to be successful as a photographer, and all that is very coherently treated.   The route he chooses to escape the complications of success turns out to be more dramatic than expected — he is nearly killed on a freighter, and at the end he is on yet another foreign shore, possibly without any identity at all.  It’s not a neat ending, but it is a really nice progression, from very structured life to risk-taking to (perhaps) complete freedom.

This was a movie I liked so much that I decided to seek out the book it was based on.  Often I find movies based on books not as good as the books — occasionally I like the movie better.  In this case, I liked them both, but I found that they were not really the same story all the way through.

The book was written by Douglas Kennedy, and the protagonist is an American.  The action stays in the U.S., while following much of the same storyline at first:  unfulfilling career, wife’s affair with photographer, unintended killing of same, assuming his identity and going away (done much more simply in the movie, though I guess it would have to be — it was engagingly described in the book), photography from the heart that is now successful, photo editor in remote new location who becomes a lover, success and complication.   Paul’s love for his two children is the same in both, as is his acquisition of a new friend, a drunk who turns out to be a prominent journalist andwho is instrumental in his first success.

But at the point of the complications of that first success, the movie diverged from the book.  In the movie, Paul moves on again, leaving his photo editor lover behind without apparently a second thought — she doesn’t appear again.  In the book, she continues to be an active and important character (she has a much larger role and more characterization than the movie lover, even from the start).  After he surmounts all the complications with her assistance, they move on to a final situation in Los Angeles that includes a new identity for him and a even new family.  Very neat and tidy — satisfying, in that the characters that we have been rooting for have a happy ending after all.  (Even the wife left behind gets a happy ending, and presumably the children get the benefit of that. )  It’s a circle closed, where the movie has a rising trajectory.

In the movie, Paul doesn’t get a new wife and a new situation in a known location.  He’s left alone in a strange place (North Africa?) with nothing but the clothes on his back and his camera.  He has escaped — from both the most recent danger and the complications in Montenegro, as well as from the original problem back in France.  He is completely free, and judging by the last shot of him, he is finally completely happy.

Different ways to go with the same story — different story arcs.  I like them both.  I may look for more books by Douglas Kennedy — I will definitely go to see future foreign-language movies of suspense.   I recommend the same to anyone!

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