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 Parisian publishing house and lives with her struggling novelist boyfriend Fred Koskas (Bastien Bouillon), whose latest novel, 'The Bathroom' has been largely ignored by critics. During a weekend getaway at her father's house on the Crozon peninsula in Brittany, Delphine stumbles into a library of unpublished literary works which were rejected by publishing houses. What if a book that connected with you on an emotional level - one which you shouldn't live without - was rejected by a publisher?
Daphné soon makes this connection with a manuscript, 'Les Dernières Heures d'une histoire d'amour' ('The Last Hours of a Love Affair'), a story about the end of an affair and the pain of the Russian writer Pushkin. The author, Henri Pick, used to run a local pizza shop and recently passed away. A taciturn dude who was never known as a big fan of reading, he kept his writing a total secret from his family, who are bewildered to learn that he wrote a novel.
The work is published by Daphné. It becomes a best-seller and Pick's widow appears on a cultural television show hosted by literary snob Jean-Michel Rouche (Fabrice Luchini, 'In the House'). He haughtily announces his doubts about the author's true identity, and the subsequent backlash sees him losing both his job and his wife. Rouche undergoes a sort of midlife crisis and quickly becomes an obsessed with validating his suspicions. "I will prove that Pick is not the real author," he declares, and so begins a story-within-a-story investigation, from cosmopolitan publishing houses in Paris to housewives meeting at a local book club in Crozon, from cocktail parties to historic 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 of the story allow Bezançon and screenwriter Vanessa Portal to explore weighty themes, like dealing with failure and picking yourself up again when your luck runs out.
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 mature and cultured movie, Bezançon unspools the story with care, keeping the tone light and the mystery intriguing. Luchini plays on the comedic value of his character, an amateur sleuth whose main tools are his own intellectual vanity and blunt obstinacy. Nevertheless, the many twists of the story allow Bezançon and screenwriter Vanessa Portal to explore weighty themes, like dealing with failure and picking yourself up again when your luck runs out.
For a film about the harsh realities of the publishing industry and a man destroying his life over (possibly) a huge literary fraud, 'The Mystery of Henri Pick' is a surprisingly pleasant and light-hearted crowd-pleaser.