Tell No One (Canet)

– or, to give it its French title, Ne Le Dis A Personne, is a Guillaume Canet thriller made in 2006, which I’ve just finished watching on DVD. The problem with watching films on DVD, especially if you’re on your own, is that, when they get very confusing, it is all too tempting to press the pause or reverse button, thinking, ‘What the hell?’. And I certainly gave Canet’s film a few mini re-runs. I thought it was a great film, but, as with the famous incident in which Raymond Chandler, asked to explain who shot a chauffeur to some scriptwriters working on one of his novels, and obliged to admit that he didn’t know, I don’t think the plot of Tell No One would stand up to very close scrutiny. Either that or autopsies are particularly slapdash in France …

It’s interesting what films can get away with, rather more easily than novels (the point about the Chandler story is that nobody spotted the gaffe until they went through the plot with a fine-tooth comb). The images are thrown at you with such bewildering speed that in the end, you don’t actually worry too much that you’ve missed the meaning of much of the action. In this case, there were so many double-bluffs that I gave in and just let them roll through my synapses without caring.

At the centre of the film is a hapless paediatrician, whose wife has been murdered eight years earlier. He has been a suspect, but a serial killer has been blamed. Suddenly she sends him an email, with a link to a web-camera (why didn’t she just write him a letter?). So if she is emailing him, is she dead or alive? (The film throws a familiar spanner at the viewer’s head, in that the pair have supposedly been childhood sweethearts, when it is as plain as a pikestaff – what the hell is a pikestaff, and why is it plain? – that the performers are more than a decade apart in age. There is, as with almost all French films, and I’m not objecting, plenty of nudity to prove this.)

And if she is dead, who is pretending she is alive? And if she is alive, why has she come back from the dead after eight years? (We are allowed to think that the corpse may not have been hers, because it transpires that our hero never saw it, and that her father identified it, in which case … and so on.)

For all the colander-like property of the plot, should you be unwise enough to think about it, like me, it’s a great film, with that incredibly clean cinematography that only the French seem able to achieve, and with a series of excellent performances, notably from Kristin-Scott-Thomas (you may not have known that she is a flawless French speaker) as the partner of the paediatrician’s sister; Mika’ela Fisher, as a steely villain, one of the best I’ve seen – see her website here here, and that oddly placed apostrophe is not a typo; and from the veteran (then 76) Jean Rochefort. I haven’t picked out any of the principals, you might notice: it’s just that these three, in a packed field, were startlingly good.

It may be that, with weaker performances, poorer editing, and a duff script, the coincidences and clangers (much hangs on the typing in of an email address into a Yahoo account, which any nerd will tell you is incorrectly done, and I am Mr. Any Nerd on this occasion) would have scuppered the film. The Americans are apparently tempted to re-make it, so perhaps we shall see. They will have to work hard to beat Canet, whose script it also was, as it was, improbably, his directorial debut.

Kristin Scott-Thomas and Francois Cluzet in 'Tell No-One'

Kristin Scott-Thomas and Francois Cluzet in 'Tell No-One'

By the way, plain as a pikestaff seems to come from ‘plain as a packstaff’, which was a bog-standard stick on which a pedlar hung his wares. Convincing? No, me neither. Not when there was a weapon called a pikestaff. But I haven’t the etymological armoury to argue. And ‘plain’ used to mean smooth, incidentally, as in the opposite of rough, and, amazingly, as in ‘plane’. In fact there is one very good example of this word swapping spellings, but not meaning: ‘plain sailing’ means smooth or ‘plane’ sailing, and used to be spelled that way. It’s the ‘ai’, presumably, which looked neater when repeated.
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