THE MYSTERY OF HENRI PICK

★★★

A CHARMING LITERARY DETECTIVE STORY

ALLIANCE FRANÇAISE FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
23rd August 2020

There's something strangely compelling about detective stories set in the musty world of books and reclusive authors, like Roman Polanski's 'The Ninth Gate', John Carpenter's 'In the Mouth of Madness', Justin Kelly's 'J.T. Leroy', Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal's 'The Words', Rowdy Herrington's 'A Murder of Crows' and Pascal Mercier's 'Night Train to Lisbon'. The latest (and by far the most charmingly laidback) is director Rémi Bezançon's 'The Mystery of Henri Pick', based on the novel by David Foenkinos.

Daphné Despero (Alice Isaaz, 'Elle') has a junior role at a bustling Parisian publishing house and lives with her struggling novelist boyfriend Fred Koskas (Bastien Bouillon), whose latest novel, 'The Bathroom' has just been brushed off by critics. One weekend while at her father's house on the Crozon peninsula in Brittany, Delphine learns of the existence of a library of unpublished literary works which were rejected by publishing houses. What if the book you were meant to read - a book that is just right for you and you shouldn't live without - was rejected by a publisher?

WATCH: 'THE MYSTERY OF HENRI PICK'

Daphné soon discovers a manuscript that entrances her, 'Les Dernières Heures d'une histoire d'amour' ('The Last Hours of a Love Affair'), a story that recounts the end of an affair and the agony of the Russian writer Pushkin. The author, Henri Pick, used to run a pizzeria in the local area and recently passed away. A taciturn dude who was never seen to read a book, he kept his writing and literary aspirations a complete secret from his family, who are bewildered to learn of his talent.

The work is published by Daphné and becomes a best-selling phenomenon. It leads to Pick's widow appearing on a cultural television show hosted by elitist literary critic Jean-Michel Rouche (Fabrice Luchini, 'In the House'). He snobbishly voices his doubts about the author's real identity, and the subsequent backlash sees him losing both his job and his wife. Rouche undergoes a late midlife crisis - and demonstrating that he was right soon becomes a personal matter. "I will prove that Pick is not the real author," he determines, and so begins a story-within-a-story investigation, from large publishing houses to women participating in a local book club in Crozon, from Parisian cocktails to Breton cemeteries. New clues are soon uncovered by Rouche with the aid of Joséphine (the always great Camille Cottin, 'Dumped'), Henri Pick's headstrong daughter.

The many twists and turns of the story only serve as a playful pretext to explore the central themes: dealing with failure - while hopefully turning it into a belated success - and picking yourself up again when things don't go your way.

In the hands of a less-skilled director, this could be quite silly, a la 'The Words', which starred beefcake Bradley Cooper as the world's least convincing struggling author. But 'The Mystery of Henri Pick' is deftly handled by Bezançon ('Zarafa'). A sedate and civilised movie, Bezançon unspools the story with care, keeping the tone light and playful, the mystery intriguing and gently teased out. Luchini plays on the comedic value of his character, an investigator who improvises his lack of formal sleuthing skills and forges ahead using a mix of intellectual snobbery and tactless obstinacy. Nevertheless, the many twists and turns of the story (the screenplay is credited to the director and screenwriter Vanessa Portal) only serve as a playful pretext to explore the central themes: dealing with failure - while hopefully turning it into a belated success - and picking yourself up again when things don't go your way.

For a film about the harsh realities of the publishing industry and a man ruining his life over (possibly) a great literary fraud, 'The Mystery of Henri Pick' is a surprisingly pleasant, sophisticated and light-hearted crowd-pleaser.

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