The Big Picture aka L’homme qui Voulait Vivre sa Vie

The Big Picture (2010) aka L’homme qui Voulait Vivre sa Vie (The Man Who Wanted to Live His Life) was screened on Day 3 of the Sarasota Film Festival. While the English title is short and succinct it doesn’t really describe the film as well as the French title does. Of course that requires some explanation so read on.

Paul Exben (portrayed by Romain Duris) is a very successful Parisian attorney. His life has everything one looks for to determine success. A lovely home in an upscale Paris suburb that is filled with an attractive wife and two sparkling small children. Exben’s law practice has him in partnership with Catherine Deneuve who is called Anne. We are shown just one of Exben’s clients – a trust fund brat who will inherit 87 million Euro’s in just a few years. Life is good.

Exben has a hobby of photography, At one time he wanted to make a career in photography but he followed his family’s wishes, went into law, and married. He still dabbles in photography, and owns the best cameras, lenses, and a complete top-of-the-line photo lab. To those of us peeking into his life, it appears that he has it all.

Directed by Eric Lartigau, the film quickly turns the tables on us, and we see (only minutes into the film) that there’s plenty that’s not quite right. First of all, we see from Paul Exben’s eyes that his wife Sarah, played by Marina Fois, is not all that happy. She’s definitely avoiding her husband’s affections, so much so that he actually questions her about why she’s avoiding him physically. She even turns away from his good morning kiss at the breakfast table.

Romain Duris as Paul Exben / Marina Fois as Sarah Exben

So straight away both Exben and we viewers are wondering about her. She later offers some fairly weak excuses about where she was, and what was only a mild inkling about all not being right in the Exben home, begins to grow.

Catherine Deneuve and Romain Duris

Exben’s inklings soon become suspicions, and even a night of lovemaking with his wife, are not enough for him to let go of his gnawing doubts about his wife’s fidelity.

At a friend’s dinner party, he basically loses it. The dinner wine is a heavy clue, Exben is soon drunk, and he then proceeds to humiliate his wife in front of everyone.

The next day we find that his wife has taken the two children and went to her sister’s home. Paul Exben decides to confront the man he believes is his wife’s lover. Of course there’s another physical clue at this man’s home that Sarah has been there.

The confrontation gets physical. Moments later, Paul is standing over the lover’s dead body. Soon after, the film takes a 90 degree turn and begins to take on aspects of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Talented Mr. Ripley’ novel. By that I mean that, that Paul Exben decides to avoid being charged with murder, and to spare his wife and children the embarrassment of his being dragged away in handcuffs to face a charge of murder. So he comes up with a plan to dispose of the body, then fake his own death, and then run off to Eastern Europe in the guise of the dead photographer.

While not a new idea, the film spends a considerable amount of time to execute this plan. Of course it works, and shortly thereafter, Exben, now Gregoire Kremer, sets up near Kotor, in Montenegro, near the Adriatic Sea.

Exben/Kremer now hopes to live his life serenely pursuing photography and without attracting any notice at all. He planned for a quiet life far away from his old world. But once again, Lartigau, throws more deviations at us. They come in the form of Bartholomé, an older French expat, in Kotor, and Ivana, a beautiful magazine art director.

Niels Arestrup as Bartholomé

These two characters, played marvelously by Niels Arestrup (War Horse, Sarah’s Key), and Branka Katic, manage to turn Exben/Kremer’s life upside down once again. That’s as far as I can go with the story lines.

Branka Katic as Ivana

My thoughts are that the Lartigau’s vision of the film was to explore two themes: how to measure success and its adjunct happiness, and secondly – how difficult it is to live the life you’ve chosen for yourself.

I believe that Lartigau executed Exben’s plan (post killing) perfectly. But his overriding thematic questions weren’t done successfully. First we don’t know why Exben’s wife was dissatisfied. We simply don’t get the opportunity to see her perspective. Does she take Kremer, the struggling French photographer, as her lover because he’s doing what he wants with his life, and Exben didn’t follow his dreams? Or was there more to it than that?

We don’t have an answer for that. We can only guess.

Second, once Exben/Kremer is set up in Kotor, the circumstances that follow seem beyond preposterous. I’m sure that none of us can truly predict how our lives will play out. For certain, life can throw some unexpected curves, and detours, and deviations at us. Only in The Big Picture none of them seem realistic. Some of these events work just like a jig-saw puzzle, fitting together nicely and cleanly. Only in real life, the edges are always ragged.

It seems as if the film was written to bookend the centerpiece of the killing and what followed with a seemingly successful career and marriage that disintegrates before our eyes, and how Exben’s life was batted around like a ping-pong ball once he got to Kotor. While the film’s center was fine – neither of the bookends worked well at all and I am left with disappointment about the film.

I’ll give the film a three-point zero on a scale of one to five. The casting and acting were flawless, as was the camera work and the editing choices. But you won’t be prepared for the end of the film when it does suddenly and jarringly end. You will have recognized the questions that the film asks you to think about, but neither are resolved or answered. Maybe they can’t be answered because that’s the way life is. Maybe the whole point of the film is to ask the unanswerable questions to get you to think about them. Which is fine – but is somewhat pointless. As was the film