Synopsis: The Apartment is an enticing romantic thriller about a man (Vincent Cassel) who turns his life upside down when he overhears the melodic voice of his lost love (Monica Bellucci) in a crowded cafe. Gone before he can catch her, he sets out to find her, leaving his fiancée, his luggage and his promising career behind.
eyelights: its clever storytelling. its plot twists. its convincing cast. its strong finale.
eyesores: its early coincidences.
As he’s shopping for a wedding ring, a man overhears a woman he thinks is his long lost love. At first frozen in his tracks, he tries to follow her, but it’s too late; she’s gone again. Luckily for him, she’s left behind a hotel room key. Obsessed, he drops everything to try to trace her footsteps and find her again.
But is she the woman he remembers? And can he turn back the hands of time?
‘L’appartement’ is the first and only feature film by writer-director Gilles Mimouni. Released in 1996, it was well-received but is mostly notable for having united European superstars Vincent Cassel and Monica Bellucci, whose relationship outlasted most of their peers’, running its course after nearly two decades.
Stories of romantic obsession are a dime a dozen; Hollywood alone has churned out such fare since time immemorial. And crimes of passion have been the bread and butter of b-movies for ages. So it would be easy to dismiss ‘L’appartement’ as yet another in an endless stream of tripe. But it’s stronger stuff than that.
Much stronger stuff.
What makes the picture uniquely compelling is its structure: it first gives us Max’s perspective, before switching to Alice’s, before switching to Lucien’s and then, finally to Lisa’s, gradually revealing more and more about the characters’ secrets and lies – and the misunderstandings that are borne from them.
Another technique that Mimouni uses is a consistent shift between the present and the past, providing us with a contrast and a deeper understanding of context. This not only helps to put the pieces together, it informs the characters’ behaviour; people sometimes act strange at first glance, but it often makes sense.
Contextually-speaking, of course.
If at first our story seems like a simple tale of obsession, with the discovery that Max first met Lisa by following her around, it actually ends up being far more complicated than that. And the mystery of what happened to Lisa two years ago and how Alice and Lucien are involved is surprising and sometimes dumbfounding.
Ultimately, though, the big question is: will Max and Lisa be reunited? And what happens if they are?
These questions leave us on edge as much as the underlying sense of danger that pervades the picture, due to the seeming instability of the characters in our story. The obsession is not just Max’s: it’s every single main character’s, as each is driven beyond his/her natural boundaries by uncontrollable passion.
One of the things that I like the most about this picture is that, unlike other films of its ilk, the crime of passion is merely incidental. Though it will ultimately influence Max’s journey, it’s more of a fringe element that adds a final tragic twist to the tale. The central crimes here are of an ethical nature.
The performances are uniformly strong, as much from the leads as from the supporting players: We know that Max is a bit awkward, we know that Alice is unstable, we know that Lisa is confident, and we know that Lucien is shaken. There is never any doubt about any of the characters’ motivations or behaviours.
Despite their flaws, we understand them and can sympathize to some degree.
Where the film stumbles slightly is in its early moments because of a few early coincidences that get the story started – notably the fact and the way that Max overhears the woman in the phone booth, and that she would forget her hotel room key. But little doubt actually remains when the various perspectives are revealed.
By that point, we’re caught up in all the overlapping stories, trying to get to the truth – and discover how it will all end. And the ending is a doozy, at once tragic, bittersweet and ironic. Whether or not it’s realistic is utterly irrelevant when faced with the cleverness that brought all of the pieces together.
‘L’appartement’ is a fascinating film. Though its central story is relatively simple, the way it’s told makes it gripping. There isn’t a moment in which it could possibly lose its audience; from the moment one chooses to follow Max in his obsession, we become equally intent on revealing every layer in this mystery.
Like Max, we just can’t help ourselves.
Date of viewing: January 14, 2017