Directors' Showcase / UK premiere

The Serpent

  • Eric Barbier /
  • France /
  • 2006 /
  • 119 mins

Yvan Attal, Clovis Cornillac, Pierre Richard, Simon Abkarian, Jean-Claude Bouillon / Fiction / French

Classy, edge-of-your seat French thriller.

This über-stylish addition to the recent crop of French thrillers takes as its source Plender, a lesser-known novel by the English crime writer Ted Lewis. (Lewis’s other works include the seminal Jack’s Return Home, filmed no less than three times, but most famously as Get Carter in 1971.) Adapted by director Eric Barbier, The Serpent transposes the novel’s action from the industrial north of England in the 1960s to an unnamed city in contemporary France.

A senior lawyer with a weakness for young prostitutes is ruthlessly set up and blackmailed by the psychopathic Joseph Plender (Clovis Cornillac) and his accomplice, Sofia (Olga Kurylenko). Their next target is Vincent Mandel (Yvan Attal), a fashion photographer of questionable integrity. Vincent’s marriage to the daughter of the tycoon who set him up in business has degenerated into a nasty custody battle for their two young children. When the set-up goes badly wrong, Plender steps in, ostensibly to save the day. But by no coincidence whatsoever, Plender turns out to be an old high school “friend” of Vincent’s. It soon becomes clear that the blackmailer is not just after money… and that his obsessive preoccupation with his mother is symptomatic of some very deep-seated issues.

Despite being a French take on a very British novel, Barbier’s film finds more antecedents in Hollywood than anywhere else. Plender even has a huge tattoo on his back – the serpent of the title – in the tradition of Cape Fear’s vengeful sociopath Max Cady. In fact, a few names even spring to mind for the near-inevitable US remake.

Barbier keeps the tension cranked up throughout, with no small thanks to Jérôme Robert’s stylish cinematography and the cool editing of frequent Claude Miller collaborator Véronique Lange. Yvan Attal is well up to the task at hand, delivering a convincing, highly physical performance, while Clovis Cornillac, best-known as a comic, plays against type to impressive effect.
Rod White

2007 Archive

Image from The Serpent

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