For a writer to have a world-wide, runaway best-seller is like winning the lottery. If it were purely a matter of talent Dan Brown would be stacking shelves at Walmart. The genius behind The Da Vinci Code wasn’t the author but the editor who decided to leave in all the aimless bumpf downloaded from the Internet, the banal dialogue, the cardboard characters and ludicrous conspiracy theories. This anonymous mastermind realised that even though Dan Brown could barely write a sentence, he had his finger on the Zeitgeist.
This is not to say all best-sellers lack talent. Crime writers such as Ian Rankin, Henning Mankell or Michael Connelly, are a cut above most of those authors with ‘artistic’ pretentions. Agatha Christie wrote brilliant dialogue. Georges Simenon, one of the most prolific novelists of all time, was adored and envied by the French literary establishment.
Régis Roinsard’s The Translators asks us to believe in a best-selling author named Oscar Brach, who prefers – like Thomas Pynchon or Elsa Ferrante – to stay out of the public eye. The first two volumes of Brach’s Millennium trilogy have been publishing sensations, and anticipation is at fever-pitch for volume three, Dedalus.
No-one knows Brach’s identity, apart from hs publisher, Eric Angstrom (Lambert Wilson), whom we see visiting his prize author (Patrick Bauchau) early in the film. At this point we feel like members of a privileged élite, party to the big secret the rest of the world wants to know.
In order to maximise publicity and profits Eric has decided that the book should appear in multiple translations simultaneously. To achieve this coup he has brought translators from different countries to a French country chateau owned by a book-loving Russian oligarch whom we never meet. It may sound glamorous but the translators soon find they are virtual prisoners. The agreement they have signed means forfeiting all contact with the outside world until the translation is complete. They sit at their desks in an open-plan office, day after day, under the supervision of security guards. Eric allows his captives to peruse only one chapter of the book at a time.
The publisher confesses that the Millennium books are almost the only titles that have made him money – an awful lot of money. In Eric’s mind no precaution can be too extreme when it comes to safeguarding his personal gold mine.
Ironically, the idea for the film came from the translation strategy employed for Dan Brown’s novel, Inferno, in 2013, which saw two groups of translators locked in publishers’ basements for two months, working under close supervision.
Roinsard has taken that real-life scenario and added several degrees of extremity. Naturally, as this is a film made by the hyper-literate French, there could be no suggestion that Oscar Brach is a Dan Brown-style dullard. The name “Dedalus” not only suggests the legendary creator of the Labyrinth in Crete, but Stephen Dedalus from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. We learn that Brach’s “stream-of-consciousness” method is modelled on Joyce. The other constant reference is Marcel Proust. The author must indeed be a genius to produce a best-seller from these sources.
One of the virtuoso aspects of this movie is that it brings together distinguished actors from nine different countries to play the relevant translators. The list includes former Bond girl, Olga Kurylenko (Russia); Sidse Babett Knudsen (Denmark) whom some will remember as the Prime Minister in the TV series Borgen; Riccardo Scamarcio (Italy); Eduardo Noriega (Spain); Anna Maria Sturm (Germany); Maria Leite (Portugal); Frédéric Chau (China); Manolis Mavromatakis (Greece), and Alex Lawther (U.K.).
They are a wildly heterogenous group: nine different personalities thrown together as a makeshift club. Some are sincere fans of Brach’s writing, others are cynics. There are the predictable alliances and antagonisms, even before the plot takes a dramatic turn when Eric finds he’s being blackmailed by unknown parties who threaten to release the first ten pages of Dedalus onto the Internet. If he fails to pay up they will expose more of the novel.
This leads to a crazed inquisition as the publisher tries to find the spy who managed to thwart his security measures and smuggle out the story. As the tension increases, Alex, the youngest and weediest of the group, emerges as a central character.
One would never imagine that a movie about a group of translators locked up in a chateau would provide so many twists, so many red herrings and points of suspense. Roinsard and his co-writers have had tremendous fun constructing a plot that has echoes of at least two major Agatha Christie novels. It also mashes up several genres, being part thriller, part mystery, and part heist movie. Like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, just when you think you know what’s happened, the story takes off in a different direction.
Roinsard has form in crafting a compelling piece of cinema from highly unlikely materials. His first feature, Populaire (2012) was about a speed typist. It’s almost as if he’s competing in some obscure challenge: ‘Make a romantic comedy about a typist’, ‘Make a thriller about a group of literary translators’. I could suggest a few more: ‘Make a sentimental drama about the deep love that exists between the NSW Liberal Party and the Nationals’; ‘Make an arts program for the ABC without using comedians’. Yes, the world is full of challenges for the enterprising filmmaker. In France one has to work hard to be original, but here in Australia it’s enough of a challenge to make any sort of film.
Directed by Régis Roinsard
Written by Romain Compingt, Daniel Presley, Régis Roinsard
Starring Lambert Wilson, Olga Kurylenko, Alex Lawther, Riccardo Scamarcio, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Eduardo Noriega, Anna Maria Sturm, Frédéric Chau, María Leite,
Manolis Mavromatakis, Sara Giraudeau, Patrick Bauchau
France/Belgium, rated M, 105 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 19 September, 2020