Before I share my thoughts on L’Homme Qui Voulait Vivre Sa Vie, I feel under the obligation to point and laugh at the film’s British trailer. Watching the trailer, one could be forgiven for thinking that this is yet another film in the great art house/indie tradition of stories about middle-class French people who are a bit unhappy until they encounter a life-changing event that forces them to question who they are and what they do. See Romain Duris cry! See Catherine Deneuve pout with disapproval! See a wealthy French man fleeing responsibility in search of his true self. Oh the terrible pathos! Mais ou est mon Cesar? While it is fair to say that this narrative is present in Eric Lartigau’s The Big Picture, the trailer completely fails to convey the fact that this bog-standard existential narrative is presented in the form of a thriller… and a deliciously odd one at that.
Paul Exben (Romain Duris) is a wealthy and successful lawyer living in the suburbs. His wife Sarah (Marina Fois) is beautiful and his kids are charming. His professional practice is thriving and his partner (Catherine Deneuve) has just announced that she is dying and that she is intending to sign the practice entirely over to him. Exben has everything he needs to make him happy and yet he is miserable and he is miserable because his life is a lie. He never wanted to become a lawyer, he never wanted to marry his wife and he never wanted to settle down in the suburbs and have kids. He wanted to be a photographer and all the high-priced gadgets and art books in the world are not going to turn him into one. Paul is living a lie and he hates himself for it.
Painfully aware of the deep vein of misery lurking beneath her husband’s outward shows of manic happiness, Sarah knows that Paul hates himself and so she has started an affair with a local man who did decide to pursue the dream of becoming a professional photographer. Aware that something is wrong at home, Paul begins sniping at his wife until she leaves with the kids. Playing a hunch, Paul visits his neighbour and winds up getting into a struggle that leaves the man dead. Refusing to panic, Paul starts to draw up plans that will allow him to get away not only with murder but also with living the life of another person.
Lartigau treats this first act as a straightforward thriller. Full of sneaking and plotting, the scenes pop with tension as Duris uses a horrific accident as a springboard to construct a new life. Having successfully stolen his neighbour’s identity and faked his own death, Duris flees to Hungary where he starts to build a career as a professional photographer. Once the action is transferred to Hungary, The Big Picture shifts from Highsmithian thriller to traditional art house as Duris attempts to find himself amidst the shipyards and mountain views of Eastern Europe. Freed from the burden of his old li(f)e, Exben finds himself labouring under a somewhat different one.
As a Parisian lawyer, Exben fooled himself into thinking that he had no choice but to live the life he had. Terrified by the possibility of failure, Exben buried his dreams beneath a veneer of self-confident professionalism where they rotted into a form of self-loathing so intense that it destroyed his marriage and claimed the life of a neighbour. As a French photographer in Hungary, Exben may well be living under an assumed identity but his real fear is that people will discover that the gifted photographer really is nothing more than a bluffer. A chancer who bullshitted his way in the door and then used the opportunity to carve out a slice of fame and fortune. Far from being unique to Exben, these are the sorts of lies that fuel the anxieties of millions of people every day: Do we really love our partners or did we just settle? Are we really happy in our jobs? Are we deluding ourselves into thinking we can make it? When will they realise that we don’t really know what we are doing? It is not the unique character of these lies that make The Big Picture a memorable film but rather the different ways in which Lartigau forces Exben to confront them.
When Exben first realises that he is living a lie, he reacts to a catastrophic event with astonishing calm and competence. Masking his inner turmoil from his wife, he plans his escape and swings into action: problem solved. His escape made, he then finds himself on the receiving end of a problem that demands an entirely different approach. While Exben can escape his first lie by becoming an action hero, his second lie cannot be solved in so straightforward a manner. Indeed, in order to overcome the lie that he is just not good enough to work as a professional photographer, Exben has to resort to emotional exile and the slow but sure payment of dues. As the months tick past, he slowly builds a new life for himself, a life that not only allows him to work as a professional photographer but also to look at himself in the mirror and know that he is a talented artist.
What I adore about The Big Picture is the fact that, while it shows a man overcoming self-delusion in two completely different ways, it also makes the point that self-delusion is not something that can ultimately be solved. Not by sneaking around and not by exile and therapeutic introspection. Indeed, having created a new life for himself as a photographer and escaped two toxic lies, Exben finds himself having to escape from a third lie, that of the assumed identity. Again, the film shifts register. This time from introspective art house drama to mad psychotropic Horror film.
The Big Picture’s final act finds Exben alone on an oil tanker on his way to South America. Having fled two different li(v)es, he now finds himself poised to rebuild again. However, one night he is locked in his room by the crew. Upon sneaking out and grabbing his camera, Exben discovers the crew about to chuck a pair of stowaways overboard in the middle of the ocean. After snapping a few shots and deciding to challenge the captain, Exben is chucked overboard too.
The film ends with Exben having successfully faked his own death twice. No longer either a Parisian lawyer or a Parisian photographer working in Hungary, he looks across at his fellow dumpee and smiles the first unself-conscious smile of the film. He is free… he has escaped three lives and three lies and worked his way through three separate genres… but for how long is he free? Are lies really the sorts of thing that can be escaped or are they instead the things that make up our lives? Exben has had more than his fair share of lives and both of them have been good ones. Why does he think that the next one will be any better?
Given its conspicuous lack of a clear ‘take home’ message and its bewildering shifts in tone, it would have been easy for The Big Picture to come across as a muddle and a mess. While Lartigau’s direction is creditable and the film’s photography is impressive, what really holds the film together is Romain Duris’ performance. Duris, let it be said, is not a handsome man. He is a short man with spindly legs, a lantern jaw and hair that looks like matted pubes. As a lawyer, he seems too young and insouciant. As a photographer he seems overly steely and serious. However, it is precisely because of these weird inconsistencies and tensions that Duris is perfect in this role. As with his international breakthrough performance in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat With My Heart Skipped (2005), Duris plays a man who is at war with himself. In both films, Duris’ character is trapped between a real life and a dream life and, in both films, there is the distinct possibility that he fits into neither. The Big Picture raises the question that there is no single path that we ought to be walking. Lives are not things that we deny ourselves but things that we live. Yes, life demands that we lie but so what? Duris’ brittle fragility and manic excesses make him the perfect choice for the role of a man who peels back lie after lie after lie only to realise that, deep down, there is nothing there. Humans, it turns out, are lies all the way down.