What constitutes success or failure in life gets an elaborate but inconclusive workout in "Charlie Says." Dense, brooding look at six men and the title youngster over the course of three days is a cocktail of ambient adultery, personal and professional betrayal, and objectionable parenting en route to a slew of epiphanies. Only two participants dabble in comic relief. Consequences of the characters' questionable choices are revealed without overriding concern for the viewer, who is invited to draw his own conclusions from the messy slices of life shown.
Fans of French-lingo cinema may be lured by the line-up of usually superb thesps, but they will find that thesp-turned-helmer Nicole Garcia is working from a needlessly murky script about the fragility of otherwise robust males. Filmmakers seem so reluctant to spell things out that the viewer is likely to remain indifferent to any or all of the ably-lensed personal crises coming to a head on the widescreen.
Opening scene, pre-credits, is a tantalizing dialogue-free sequence in the snow, featuring bundled-up scientists at an excavation site beset by extreme weather. One figure heads off across the frozen tundra and is tackled by another.
Protags are then introduced in sometimes vivid but parsimonious bits and pieces.
Passengers on a train speeding to an off-season resort town on France's Atlantic coast include world-class paleontologist Matthieu (Patrick Pineau) and young Gallic tennis star Adrien (Arnaud Valois), whose defeat in a crucial match is common knowledge. Matthieu is returning to the town where he grew up to preside over a three-day conference. Adrien will continue his brutal training regimen.
With his long-suffering staff on hand, short-tempered mayor Jean-Louis Bertagnat (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is rehearsing his welcome speech to the great scientist. A nuts and bolts pragmatist who is having a mutually satisfying illicit affair with Severine (Sophie Cattani), a 25-year-old municipal landscaper, Bertagnat doesn't put much stock in intellectual bla-bla.
Amiable petty crook Joss (Benoit Poelvoorde) is currently on parole. Serge Torres (Vincent Lindon) works at the pool. Serge's wife (Valerie Benguigui) nags him to finish building a brick barbecue, but he's distracted by the logistics of his lusty assignations with fellow employee Nora (Minna Haapkyla). Nora is married to mild-mannered Pierre (Benoit Magimel), an earth sciences teacher.
Serge enlists his 11-year-old son Charlie (Ferdinand Martin), who is a student of Pierre's, as his unwilling accomplice and provider of alibis.
When Pierre and Matthieu catch sight of each other, it would appear they share some sort of unresolved past. What's eating at the two men is the most important and the least well-elucidated aspect of the narrative.
Charlie makes a decision with serious fallout for residents and visitors.
While it's perfectly fine to make audiences work for their rewards, there's a vast gap between spoon-feeding and being willfully oblique, with scripters opting too often for the latter. Pic will have its fans, especially in Gaul, but a riddle wrapped inside an enigma is only fun if you're at least half-way to solving it after 134 minutes.
Thesps are fine across the board, with Poelvoorde and Bacri well cast as smooth talkers hitting rough patches. Pineau conveys the contradictions of a researcher who, having discovered the skeleton of a prehistoric man, seems to have even more questions about himself than about the 25,000-year-old frozen enigma that made his name.
Finnish thesp Haapkyla is very good as a Fin out of water.
Camera (color, widescreen), Stephane Fontaine; editor, Emmanuelle Castro; production designer, Thierry Flamand; costume designer, Nathalie Du Roscoat; sound (Dolby), Jean-Pierre Duret, Nicolas Moreau, Jean-Pierre Laforce; assistant director, Antoine Garceau; casting, Frederique Moidon. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 20, 2006. Running time: 134 MIN.