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Denis Dercourt’s The Page Turner is a much smaller film than Spider-Man 3, but that’s not why it rates a shorter review. I’m keeping it brief because revealing too much would spoil the pleasure. The appeal of this impeccably structured psychological thriller depends less on foreboding and shock than gentle surprise and clockwork plotting.
The story begins with prepubescent Mélanie (a steely Julie Richalet), the piano-obsessed daughter of a butcher. Her practice sessions are intercut with her father’s hacking of meat, a visual duet that may be a nod to Claude Chabrol’s The Butcher. Chabrol is clearly an inspiration in tone if not in style, but Dercourt doesn’t build to the carnage that ends many of that director’s chilly thrillers. While there is one bloody scene to come, it involves not a knife or a gun but a more amusingly apt weapon. And that moment is just a wicked aside, with no direct bearing on the central scheme.
Intense young Mélanie goes for an audition, informing her parents that she will cease playing if she fails. The girl loses her concentration when one of the judges, an imperious star pianist, agrees to sign an autograph. Approximately a decade later, Mélanie has become a prim, voluptuous young woman played by Déborah François (L’Enfant’s aggrieved madonna). She wins an internship at a Paris law firm and greatly impresses her boss, Jean Fouchécourt (Pascal Greggory). Soon Mélanie has become interim nanny for Jean’s son, Tristan (Antoine Martynciow), who’s about the same age his new baby sitter was when she abandoned the piano.
Although she appears guileless, Mélanie remains the meticulous planner she was when she still anticipated a career as a musician. So it’s no happenstance that she ends up living at the château inhabited by her old nemesis: Jean’s wife and Tristan’s mother is Ariane (Catherine Frot), the woman who spoiled Mélanie’s audition. Her assurance broken by a car crash, the former star is now “fragile,” as Jean tells Mélanie. Ariane is attempting a comeback as a member of a trio that plays Shostakovich, but she desperately needs support. A seemingly innocent and sweet-natured young woman who reads music well would be the perfect helpmate and companion.
In other words, Mélanie has Ariane exactly where she wants her. That’s not saying too much, since the young woman’s design quickly becomes apparent. The film’s mystery is how Mélanie will strike at Ariane. Through her son? Her husband? Her career? Will the assault be literal, as the butcher’s cleaver seemed to foretell, or something less tangible?
Elegant and fascinating, The Page Turner is an entertainment, not a real-world drama. Mélanie may be a deft conniver, but her strategy could be derailed by dozens of unforeseen events. Dercourt, who scripted with Jacques Sotty, boosts the tale’s plausibility by placing it in a world he knows well. Every detail, from the Fouchécourt château to the radio studios where the trio performs to the Bach and Schubert piano pieces the characters practice, supports the notion that Mélanie and Ariane could be real. So, admirably, do the performances, which rely on glances and gestures rather than emotional speeches. Where Chabrol’s attacks on French bourgeois hauteur frequently end in literal murder, Dercourt does exquisite damage with a handful of words and a few wounded looks.