Language is important. More often than not, it’s not just what you say but how you say it. Being a good writer takes draft after draft of scored out sentences and deleted dialogue. It’s about weaving multiple plot points and characters together to create a cohesive narrative. It’s a craft; a fine art to keep people reading until the end. Or, in the case of Les Traducteurs, watching.
Deftly toying with its own genre like a cat dangling a mouse, Regis Roinsord’s clever whodunnit is a knowing wink and an earnest nod all at once; it’s telling you one thing and showing you another. It’s Knives Out meets And Then There Were None by way of the Rosetta Stone. It teases the idea of a book franchise that is so popular, the entire world needs to know how it ends whilst keeping its own viewers on the hook until the very last shot.
“Dedalus” is the creation of mysterious, reclusive author, Oscar Brach. He has recently completed the third and final installment of the literary trilogy and – in order to avoid the plot being leaked on the internet – hires Eric Angstrom (Lambert Wilson) to supervise multiple, simultaneous translations. These translations must all take place in a high security underground bunker, miles from the centre of Paris. It is in this austere, concrete room that most of the action takes place.
The plot is – on the surface – very simple. When the first ten pages of the novel are somehow leaked from the bunker, Angstrom and each of the translators immediately become suspicious of each other; with each individual battling to assert their own innocence. A ransom is set – as more time passes, more pages will be leaked if the demands are not met. So, who is causing the leak? How did each of these translators come to be in the bunker? Why won’t Oscar Brach show his face? And how, exactly, did Angstrom acquire the rights to this literary phenomenon?
Films with big, ensemble casts can be hard work and some characters – unwittingly or not – can be left in the shadow of others. Roinsord does attempt to allow us to get to know the various translators in as much depth is necessary to move the plot along. Yes, they are relatively caricatural but, in these circumstances, it works. We get just enough background information and snippets of personality to decide who we like … Or, so we’re led to believe.
There’s the punky Portuguese skinhead, Telma (Maria Leite); Konstantinos, the Marxist Greek (Manolis Mavromatakis); the hot-headed Italian, Dario (Riccardo Scamarcio); Helene, the nervous Dane who cracks bad jokes and dreams of writing her own novel (Sidse Babbet Knudsen). Getting the most screen time are nerdy, skateboarding Brit, Alex (Alex Lawther) and “Dedalus” obsessive, Katerina (Olga Kurylenko), who floats about dressed as the novels’ heroine.
The film toys with the idea that translators, to a certain extent, live their lives by proxy. Their names aren’t on the covers of books and no one knows who they are. Angstrom’s idea of a creative process is to coop his translators up like battery hens. It offers up a whispered critique of creating art for passion or for profit and on the censorship of translations themselves. Bookending (ahem) the film is the image of books being burned – another hint at knowledge being censored or covered up. It’s not a plotline that is explored beyond a superficial level, but there are enough barbed comments laced throughout the script that may make you think about the writing (and translating) process in a different way.
About an hour in, the film throws a genuine curveball that makes you question everything you’ve seen unravel so far. Like a sleight of hand trick, Roinsord had you watching something shiny while he was putting the real storyline together right in front of you. Suddenly, the pace literally doubles and there will be several moments that leave you gasping out loud. Lambert Wilson ups his snarling, sneering game and positively devours the camera like a 1970s Bond villain.
Keeping you on your toes is the soundtrack of searing strings and the increasing tick of a clock, like a bomb is about to go off. There is a particularly thrilling scene where all the translators are standing a circle, the camera swirling around their faces, as they all communicate in each other’s native tongue. Languages are flying around the room, filling the air with translations. It is a frenzied moment that draws your eyes and ears in several different directions at once.
Les Traducteurs – like the novel being translated – is a cleverly crafted whodunnit that will keep you guessing until the very end. It is, perhaps, not the most deep or challenging watch but, as the truth unravels, the film (and its characters) becomes more interesting and exciting. There are a couple of emotional suckerpunches but, on the whole, this is a film that is every bit as thrilling as the latest best-selling Scandi noir.
Les Traducteurs was shown as part of the French Film Festival UK 12-27 March 2021