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James Norton and Imogen Poots are brilliant as a disintegrating American couple in Amy Herzog's slightly wobbly thriller
Zack and Abby are a young, married American couple living in France, in the titular Parisian neighbourhood of Belleville. They’re there because he – a recently graduated doctor – has a job with Médecins Sans Frontières while she – an actor, kind of – bums round and teaches a bit of yoga. They are cute. Very cute, in fact: they are played by the extremely good-looking James Norton and Imogen Poots. US playwright Amy Herzog has a often brilliantly excruciatingly ear for domestic detail: Zack and Abby are adorable in a vaguely infuriating way, doing things like call each other ‘homie’.
There’s something wrong, though, a strain. They snipe at each other. She makes the odd calculatedly cruel comment. He is controlling and appears to have concocted an unlikely story as to why they’re not able to leave France to visit her sister, who is about to have a baby. He confiscates her phone and makes her dress down. And unbeknownst to Abby, Zack’s behind on the rent that he owes to their straight-shooting Senegalese landlord Alioune (Malachi Kirby). Something is up.
Herzog and director Michael Longhurst give us a brilliantly acted but uneven psychological thriller. Norton offers a masterclass in simultaneous menace and vulnerability, a sort of millennial Willy Loman, whilst Poots is fantastic as a fraying woman who’s gradually, agonisingly forcing herself to confront the fact that something has gone terribly awry with her life. At its best ‘Belleville’ comes close to being a perfect depiction of corrosive male narcissism. But it always backs away.
Weird moments of black comedy – largely revolving around Abby injuring her toe – add a jarringly facetious note. And Herzog’s desire to fill ‘Belleville’ with psychological twists and turns sends it off into frustratingly silly territory, while also trying to manipulate us into shifting our affections between the pair, when it feels abundantly apparent that by all reasonable definitions she is the victim and he is the abuser.
Once it settles down, it exerts a potboilerish grip on your attention and doesn’t let go, with a terrifically tense final third. If the big picture often feels a bit wobbly, Herzog gives her leads some meaty emotional stuff to work with (I think there is probably also a smart subtext about the fragility of American identity that may be slightly lost on a British audience).
It’s a solid 90 minutes. But where the Donmar’s Christmas show is usually its grandest feature of the year, ‘Belleville’ has the distinct whiff of B-movie.