In the beginning, there was a confidence man. A crook whose modus operandi consisted of impersonating names filched over the phone from unsuspecting secretaries, making his own business stationery, reselling stolen equipment on the black market. The first ten minutes or so of Xavier Giannoli's excellent A l'origine should be required viewing for equipment rental clerks. Rent an expensive machine to "Phillippe" and you'll never see it again.
Phillippe doesn't launder money as much as he irons it - literally. Crumpled notes wind up looking like they just came out of an ATM. His is a cash economy, and he lives on the move. The map in his glove compartment is marked with hits, past and future. Until he arrives in one town where his assumed identity of a project manager means something to the locals - hope.
A l'origine (film's official website, EuropaCorp), a Cannes 2009 selection, is based on a true story. Of a swindler who winds up taking on a moribund public works project - building a section of a motorway (!) - when all he had set out to do was bilk the willing locals of their cash and move on. Giannoli, who had read about the case in the late Nineties, has turned an unusual subject into a formidable film, where not only is the story based on fact, but the film production began to resemble the story line.
Giannoli has spurned special effects, so the rain you see is real, as is the mud that accompanies road construction in mid-winter. If the bulldozer operators and dump truck drivers look real, that's because they are - two kilometers of highway were built on the bleak northern France location. The challenges faced by Phillippe and the local authorities and entrepreneurs that he enlisted in his quixotic "cause" - cash shortages, bad weather, non-delivery of services - were all faced by Giannoli and his crew during filming.
Fine, you say, but how is the acting? First, the supporting roles. French film icon Gérard Depardieu plays with sullen ease a very nasty fellow crook, one you never want to cross. Giannoli has worked with Depardieu before, and Depardieu is loyal to his director, to the point of offering to drive a truck when production financing hit a rough spot. Emmanuelle Devos plays the town mayor with such credibility that the local citizens wanted to keep her on. Devos, for those who don't know her, won the César for Best Actress in Sur mes lèvres in 2001. Her presence in a film, according to the writer/director, is "a sign of life;" Giannoli wrote the part with her in mind.
Phillippe, our crook with the beginnings of a conscience, is played with taciturn virtuosity by François Cluzet, a 50 something actor with more than 80 film and TV roles under his belt. Chosen by Giannoli for his "physicality" in portraying a man of few words but big deeds, Cluzet is perfect. He captures the "deer in the headlights" look that the judge in the real life case found in the real (bad choice of word) Phillippe, who stayed on with the construction project "because for the first time in my life, I was somebody..."
Cluzet's Phillippe isn't Leonardo DiCaprio's Frank Abagnale Jr. in Catch Me If You Can, where the con artist was at times a public figure. Phillippe's one foray into the limelight puts his photo in the local newspaper - dangerous when plenty of people in the area have been stung on previous jobs.
Maybe I'm fascinated by "based on a true story" films, like Owning Mahowny and Reversal of Fortune, where fact is stranger than fiction. But there's a danger of getting too interested in the backstory behind A l'origine. This isn't a documentary (there was a such an attempt by an earlier film maker, but Phillippe stole his computer and the project fell through!), and Giannoli says that he has simply wanted to make a film about real people - even though his subject is an impostor...
If you are interested in the story of the film, and if you can read French, then I recommend this interview with Xavier Giannoli and Laurent Leguevaque (the real life judge who caught Phillippe) in "lart7.fr."
But don't read it 'til you've seen the film.