The film tells the story of Duval, a former insurance clerk, whose life has been brought to near-ruin by his addiction to alcohol. We meet him, one year sober, and looking for work.
As a middle-aged man in France’s shaky economy, Duval (played by Francois Cluzet) struggles to get a foothold. A chance meeting with an old schoolfriend leads to a phone call. Duval is offered a job transcribing telephone conversations. The work is done covertly, alone in an apartment building. Duval knows the pieces don’t quite fit, but he is not a position to refuse.
The transcribing begins – scraps of conversation are recorded on tape. Duval, in accordance with his employer’s wishes, types them out word for word on a typewriter. His employer, Clement (played by Denis Podalydes), does not trust modern technology. Too easy to breach, says Clement, this work must be kept secret.
Duval works mechanically, recording excerpts of phone calls that at first mean little, until the calls start to form a pattern. They refer to a hostage crisis, as yet unresolved. Duval, despite his instructions, begins to listen. What becomes clear during the phone calls is that the hostage crisis extends into a full-blown political conspiracy, and Duval finds himself caught in the middle of it.
Scribe, on the surface, owes a debt to the political thrillers of the Seventies, but with its juxtaposition of banality and intrigue, Scribe is far more closely aligned with the work of Alfred Hitchcock. Indeed, it is easy to see how electronic surveillance would appeal to Hitchcock if he were making films today. An ordinary man, plunged into extraordinary circumstances – Duval is, quite literally, the man who knows too much.
While Scribe aspires to some serious film pedigree, its ambition does not quite translate. While a comparatively short 90 minutes, pacing is the film’s weak spot. We are all familiar with the Hitchcockian model: the film begins sedately, and builds slowly but surely, ratcheting up the tension. It is a formula that works because it is irresistible. The audience is led, crumb by crumb, only being given the information we need.
Scribe chooses to amend this model, interspersing a quiet drip feed of tension with dramatic and violent set pieces. Rather than keeping us on the edge of our seats, the result is disjointed and overly complicated. The film never settles in one place long enough to take the audience with it.
A film about surveillance and political intrigue should be an easy sell, but Scribe overthinks the process at every stage, and it is a shame, as there are moments where you can glimpse the better film beneath.
The casting of Francois Cluzet as Duval is pitch-perfect. Cluzet’s performance unfolds beautifully as Duval slowly realises the extent to which he is mired in a conspiracy that threatens to blow his life apart.
The other positive in Scribe’s corner is that its visual language speaks loudly and clearly. A palette of grey, brown and black creates an oppressive quality that seeps throughout the film. The detail in the set design is excellent. The spareness of Duval’s flat, the studied blandness of his office, is delivered with clinical precision. Duval’s environment tells the story of Scribe, and the result is brilliantly atmospheric.
The film’s main issue is that it overcomplicates where simplicity is required. Clement’s disdain for technology is here answered with a typewriter. But, as anyone who’s watched an episode of 24 will know, a lot of problems can be solved with an air-gapped computer.
Scribe is a film of almost-greatness. If Thomas Kruithof had chosen to explore Duval’s imploding world through character study, Scribe would be a five-star sensation. With the exception of Duval, we never really get to know the motivation of the other characters, and the film suffers as a result.
Scribe does benefit from a great central performance by Francois Cluzet, but in trying to emulate the master of suspense, Scribe never quite emerges from Hitchcock’s shadow. It borrows where it needs to innovate, and places the focus of its ambition on the film’s structure. What we are left with is a film that looks the part, but doesn’t deliver the emotional sucker-punch necessary for a really good thriller. Scribe shouldn’t be written off, but like Duval, the viewer must be prepared to piece together the narrative, and listen.