Never less than beguiling, if at times bemusing, Serge Le Péron’s cineaste’s drama takes an askance look at the events leading up to and following the abduction and presumed murder of the extraordinary Moroccan revolutionary leader Mehdi Ben Barka in Paris in 1965. Le Péron has taken the interesting choice of placing at the film’s centre not Barka himself (a dignified Simon Abkarian), but the shadowy and complex figure of ‘shit-stirrer and liar’ Georges Figon (a marvellously twitchy Charles Berling), a criminal with literary pretensions whose social world included such cultural fixtures as writer Marguerite Duras (a rivetting Josiane Balasko) and surrealist director Georges Franju (a half-mad Jean-Pierre Léaud). Ben Barka agreed to act as advisor for a documentary on world revolutionary struggles Figon was producing, and it has long been assumed it was Figon who set him up for Moroccan secret service assassins working in cahoots with DeGaulle’s henchman and possibly the CIA.
As much a sorrowing portrait of an idealist age on the cusp of change as a Costa-Gavras-inflected political thriller, the film is narrated by Figon in a strange, unembittered voice from the grave as he lays in a pool of blood on the floor of a seedy flat, himself assassinated by DeGaulle’s agents – the first of a series of conjectures by the director. As such, the film’s tone and precise intentions are as hard to pin down as the divided Figon’s motives (besides money), as it veers from jazz-scored, Melville-like stylisation through lightly absurdist humour to earnest dramatic reconstruction. Those with scant knowledge of recent French history and culture may be tested but should enjoy the superb performances, not least those of the most convincing set of villains since Becker’s ‘Honour Amongst Thieves’.