Looking at the DVD box cover for Lucas Belvaux’s critically acclaimed Rapt, you could be forgiven for assuming this film is yet another addition to the nouvelle vague of violent, action-packed contemporary French thrillers in the mould of 2004’s excellent 36 Quai des Orfèvres.
“Great action scenes and some real suspense” promises the blurb, and while Rapt certainly delivers some tense atmosphere and a fairly interesting premise, it’s actually a very slow-paced hostage thriller (and unless I missed it, I didn’t see one action scene) that fails to deliver anything particularly innovative or compelling, despite the handful of Cesar nominations it picked up, including one for best picture.
Rapt centres around Stanislas Graff (Yvan Attal), an extremely wealthy French industrialist and the current director of a large, prosperous company.
On the eve of a foreign business trip to be taken with a delegation attached to the French president, Graff is brutally kidnapped by a highly-organised gang demanding a ransom of many millions. What ensues is a series of negotiations between the criminals and the authorities, Graff’s company and his fraught family. Will each party agree in time to reach a peaceful end to Graff’s incarceration, or is time running out for him?
Despite great potential, Rapt is a very straightforward affair. I suppose director Belvaux should be praised for keeping things fairly broody, and much credit for this must go to Pierre Milon’s cinematography, which is dark, stylish and claustrophobic.
Yet expectations often precede films like this, and Rapt is rather curious in that unlike many others in the same genre, it lacks an intriguing, labyrinthine plot. Belvaux directs his own script very matter-of-factly indeed, and I was surprised by its lack of narrative subtlety.
For example, from the very outset, the kidnappers’ demands are revealed: they just want money, and lots of it. That’s it. There are no clever reveals, no moments of epiphany that change our perception of what we’ve already seen. I kept expecting a complete about-turn, but it never came. The very last shot of the film seems to be an attempt at a twist, or at least it suggests Graff’s ordeal is far from over, but we’ve been expecting this moment anyway—telegraphed as it was half an hour previously—so any power is lost.
Of course, that’s not to say that every crime thriller must offer huge narrative surprises, but multi-layered plots are fun to follow and unravel, and every film buff surely gets a kick out of being bamboozled by ingenious, well-structured screenwriting (think The Usual Suspects).
That said, for all its relative simplicity, there are nevertheless certain aspects of Rapt that are praiseworthy. The film displays some complexity in its examination of the moral and ethical implications that a crime such as kidnapping entails. Can a life be valued in monetary terms? Would it be unspeakable to present Graff as a sacrificial lamb in order to keep his corporation and its staff solvent? Do the police allow Graff’s company to comply with the gang’s demands, potentially leaving the door open for future copycat crimes?
Additionally, set against a backdrop of these dilemmas, the film draws some great tension from the conflict between the platonic ménage-a-trois that develops between the police, Graff’s family and his company, with each representing three distinct camps of thought, each with an invested interest in Graff’s return, and each with very different ideas about how to bring the kidnapping to a swift conclusion.
As mentioned, the police appear most keen to ensure that the future kidnapping of others doesn’t happen, and therefore they seem reluctant to negotiate with the criminals on the terms they demand.
The family, understandably, are prepared to offer anything it takes to see their patriarch retuned safely (although there is a subplot of infidelity and marital problems between Graff and his wife, this isn’t examined in any detail and soon reaches and narrative dead-end).
Finally, Graff’s business colleagues seem interested primarily in the continuing good fortune of the company, for while they too are initially keen for their leader to return, they are also concerned with number-crunching the ransom figures, and often appear insensitive, almost as if they are prepared to treat Graff as a commodity within a larger business deal.
Despite these conflicts, perhaps the most interesting and potentially satirical aspect of the film - and one I wish had been fleshed out more – involves the notion of a fickle news media, quick to lose interest when the initial drama dies down. As viewers begin to tire of the lack of new information and start to look elsewhere for their fix of voyeurism, so too the TV corporations treat Graff’s incarceration as old news.
In this context, and in spite of the film’s early, loud scenes showing the initial stages of the dramatic kidnap, the best moment in Rapt is a quiet one, and comes at the beginning of the final reel, when Graff, who has been moved to a slightly more comfortable basement room (minus a finger, which was earlier ‘removed for posting’ during a very queasy scene), is allowed access to a small television.
Left in momentary peace by his captors, he eagerly tunes in to the national news, only to see, with an overwhelming sense of dejection, that he scarcely warrants a mention, quickly realising that despite the threat of imminent death that hangs over him, he has nevertheless become a footnote in the main headlines, and his plight relegated to filler.
It’s this moment alone that is the film’s most interesting and affecting. Graff, already captive for weeks by this point, sports a full beard, and as we look at his gaunt, haunted face and dark, hollow eyes staring at the television screen, we feel his despair, his terror, his hopelessness. We too have been living the ordeal alongside him, and the realisation that he may have been forgotten by the public comes as a blow to us, as well.
Herein lays the problem with the film: in the face of its rather simple and fairly undemanding plot, Belvaux needed many more emotionally resonant moments like this one, and had he managed them, Rapt would have been a far more involving and satisfying experience.
There were no extras on the DVD.
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