A real life incident evocatively dubbed “casino wars” glimmers with cinematic promise. Set on the glamourous French Riviera, it’s a mystery decades in the making mixing family politics with sordid lawyers and impressionable young heiresses. It must have looked irresistible on paper. So where does it all go wrong? French Riviera has its compelling side but ungainly tonal shifts and a superfluous courtroom finale combine to bury any positives.
The manipulation and eventual disappearance of Agnès Le Roux forms the central narrative of André Téchiné’s film. Returning to the south of France in the late 70s following her divorce, she’s played with naivety and convincing emotional instability by Adèle Haenel. Irritated by her distracted mother Renée Le Roux (Catherine Deneuve), she finds herself drawn to the impenetrable lawyer Maurice Agnelet (Guillaume Canet), a disreputable snake oil salesman wrapped in sharply pressed suits and a string of mistresses.
When Renée passes him over for a plum job in the family casino, Maurice sets about inveigling his way into Agnès’ heart to use her against her mother before robbing her blind. It’s the build up to familial betrayal that works best. Canet’s composed scheming comes to fruition in a clinically executed boardroom scene that sees a teary eyed Agnès vote her mother out of a job. Up to that point he’s been a deceptively benign figure, apparently acting in her best interests until it becomes apparent that her payoff for treachery sits in a joint account he can access.
Agnès herself is no push over initially. She’s more rebellious teenager than divorced heiress, fighting against her mother’s attempts to draw her back into the family business. She wants only a small shop and the value of her shares. That this isn’t forthcoming provides Maurice with his opening and in no time he’s coming by her apartment at midnight on her invitation.
When the corporate deed is done, the film begins to collapse, shifting first into an extended build up to Agnès’ disappearance, and then an unnecessary courtroom drama set in the present day. Agnès’ descent into unrequited love, accentuated by pangs of guilt for her actions, drags on far too long. She starts to call Maurice all the time, even turning up at school when he’s picking up his kids. Soon she’s spouting nonsense about running away to Africa with him. It’s almost a blessed relief when she does disappear, putting an end to a curious mix of overwrought and underplayed melodrama.
Haenel is solid but sometimes overdoes the sulky child act. Deneuve is stylish and composed as Renée but she’s mostly on autopilot in a role that requires little from her. Canet is the real problem. His studied insouciance works when he’s playing cards close to his chest early on. Later, his blank persona sees him fade from sight.
If the second act fades into dull monotony, the biggest misstep comes when the plot jumps forward to an elderly Maurice’s trial. Brought back to face charges of murder by Renée, he launches a vigorous defence based on the lack of evidence linking him to any crime, including the fact that no body was ever found. Supported only by his son, Téchiné draws suspense from the fate of his ambiguous antihero until the verdict is delivered. And then he promptly undermines his own film by concluding with text that announces follow-up legal actions have led to a different result.
It’s astonishing that French Riviera would strive so hard for a dramatic finale only to shoot itself in the foot by pointing out in just a few words that the drawn out verdict no longer stands. It’s really a symptom of wider malaise though. Just what is the point of an emotional thriller that fails to tap both emotion and thrills? Someone should really have asked that question before production commenced.