M, 101 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
smart and entertaining drama that takes an influential book critic to the provinces to dissect a snooty literary establishment
It’s no spoiler to reveal that before he was a best-selling author, Henri Pick was a pizza chef at a restaurant in a small town in Brittany. There was nothing mysterious about him at all. Until he died, leaving behind a wife, a daughter and grandson, some disappointed customers perhaps, and an unpublished novel that became a literary sensation.
Two years after his death he was a celebrity author with a brilliant, best-selling romantic novel to his name, but who knew he was a writer? Pick was obviously in no position to explain.
The manuscript was discovered by a young editor from Paris, Daphne Despero (Alice Isaaz), while she was rummaging around a bookstore in Crozon. Curiously, the store also housed a collection of unpublished manuscripts, a salon des refuses for manuscripts that had over the years been rejected by publishers.
a doyen so influential in publishing circles his reviews strike terror in the heart of new authors
Henri Pick’s novel, The Last Hours of a Love Story, goes ballistic with the reading public and the literary establishment. It confirms Daphne’s promise as an up-and-coming editor.
The author’s widow and daughter are invited to take part in a TV chat show about books. The host is literary critic Jean-Michel Rouche (Fabrice Luchini), a doyen so influential in publishing circles his reviews strike terror in the heart of new authors, like Daphne’s boyfriend Fred Koskas (Bastien Bouillon).
Rouche can barely contain his scepticism about the book’s authorship, and he reveals a lofty disdain for his two guests who he perceives as country bumpkins. He is rude to them and they walk out during the live broadcast. It sets in train Rouche’s quest to prove himself right about his hunch that Henri Pick was no author.
How could Pick have written a masterpiece, a one of a kind, a love story that ranges from scenes of sensual lovemaking to allusions to the great Romantic writer Alexander Pushkin? How could such a novel be the work of a pizza chef, an outsider to the cultural establishment who lived at Finistere, for heaven’s sake, at the end of the world? Rouche wants the literal truth when others seem prepared to let it go.
After the fiasco on air, things fall apart for him in rapid succession. His wife informs him that night that they are separating, and the next day he is fired, by text, from his job as book show host.
Let’s face it, Luchini’s Rouch is not the most engaging character. But he is an interesting one and there’s fun to be had as he gets his just desserts. As French character actors go, Fabrice Luchini is not a particular favourite of mine but he is absolutely right for this role. Just as his character Rouche is ripe for a kick in the pants.
Suddenly finding himself at a loose end, he heads off to the Finistere region of Brittany to snoop around and follow up on his hunch that there is something fishy is going on. The plot has certainly thickened. He has learned that Pick must have been fluent in Russian.
He drops in on Pick’s widow, Madeleine (Josiane Stoleru), trying to ingratiate himself with her, but she soon shows him the door, tossing the gift bouquet out after him.
Rouche has a bit more luck with Madeleine’s daughter. Josephine (Camille Cottin). She goes toe to toe with him, contesting his preconceptions about people who live at ‘the end of the world’. Her vast collection of books would probably rival his.
On Rouche’s crusade to uncover the true Henri Pick, the good people of Brittany lead him a merry dance with many false leads and narrative twists. The intricate plot runs like clockwork until the big reveal. It’s a shame the ending is a bit clunky, however the full, earnest explanation often is.
Based on a novel of the same name by award-winning author David Foenkinos, this arch French comedy was developed for the screen by Remi Bezancon, who has directed, and Vanessa Portal.
This is whip-smart comedy that celebrates the old-fashioned virtues of the murder mystery, without the murder. The Mystery of Henry Pick is a pacey whodunnit with great writing, brisk edits and an engaging original score by Laurent Perez del Mar that sets the tone. A sparkling, wordy film, having a sly dig at the literary establishment.
First published in the Canberra Times on 1 November 2020
Main image: Fabrice Luchini in The Mystery of Henri Pick. Both images courtesy UniFrance