Fabrice Luchini, Camille Cottin, Alice Isaaz
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Few professions cop as rough of a portrayal as that of a critic. Their acerbic demeanours – worn as outrageously as a fitted turtleneck – are often unravelled with the shedding of their elitist skins.
In French comedy, The Mystery of Henri Pick (based on David Foenkinos’s 2016 book of the same name), the misadventures of literary-critic Jean-Michel Rouche (a splendid Fabrice Luchini), however guilty of perpetuating familiar narratives, manages to overcome sensations of thematic fatigue – courtesy of the film’s charming leads and delightful direction.
Rouche’s influence reaches far-and-wide amongst France’s literary scene. We witness this from the get-go as a young couple, author Fred (Bastien Bouillon) and publishing executive Daphné (Alice Isaaz), nervously await Rouche’s critique of their novel, The Bathtub, on national television.
To their misfortune, the doting couple misses the opportunity to have their work assessed by Rouche; an invaluable piece of PR that could have aided sales. Soon after, Daphné, by happenstance, stumbles upon what is later celebrated as a prodigious piece of work: an unpublished manuscript that follows the exploits of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. Her bewilderment is amplified upon hearing the backstory of the mysterious author, the titular Henri Pick: a Breton pizza-maker who had died two-years prior.
Having never expressed any interest in literature, the news that a masterpiece could come from someone as ‘ordinary’ as Pick strikes an off-chord with Rouche. His intense suspicion boils to a fever-pitch, resulting in an explosive on-air display that costs him his marriage, reputation, and career.
Determined to prove Pick as a literary hoax, Rouche, accompanied by Pick’s daughter Joséphine (Camille Cottin), venture on a Sherlockian caper. It is when Cottin and Luchini are thrown into the adventure, where the film makes up the ground for an initially dawdling setup. Their relationship – both budding sleuths, holding opposing perspectives on the mystery-at-hand – simmers with a level of chemistry that would rival any late-night detective show.
Writer-director Rémi Bezançon (The First Day of the Rest of Your Life) captures the joyfully light-hearted air of French comedies by never pushing the dial into gritty territory. The feeling of this lightness is most prevalent when Bezançon embraces the effortlessly gorgeous backdrop of countryside France.
Above all, The Mystery of Henri Pick delights in its message of intellectual despotism: there is a wrong way to be right, particularly when it comes at the expense of relationships.