Kompromat hits all the marks of a competent film, but the uninspired telling of this true story tanks the movie’s potential for greatness.
Nobody is going to believe you when you say your movie is a true story. Sure, it can be agreed that the events depicted in the movie probably happened in some version that’s similar to what is on screen, but the simple fact is that real life often doesn’t make for good drama, and a good movie needs drama. The best fact-based movies use history as a premise from which to make a larger point (think Amadeus and The Social Network), while the films that don’t need to deviate from the facts often have an innate story structure (i.e., the investigation narratives of Zodiac, Spotlight, and All the President’s Men) that allow the story to tell itself. No matter which of the approaches you chose, the movie needs to be good, first and foremost. Such is the main problem with Jérôme Salle’s newest film Kompromat, a French espionage thriller that fumbles its approach right from the beginning and never truly recovers, wasting two capable leads and butchering a potentially interesting true story in favor of cheap thrills.
To be fair, Kompromat does let you know what you’re in for early on, both in terms of narrative and filmmaking. The opening text tells us the definition of the film’s title as documents used to destroy someone’s reputation, before letting us know that the movie’s plot and characters are very loosely based on real events. So, at the very least we know not to expect a strict retelling of history and can settle in for something closer to the story the director wanted to tell. Unfortunately, that movie is not a very good one, as becomes obvious when the text fades and the opening scene begins. In a flash-forward, our protagonist Mathieu (Gilles Lellouche) is being chased through the Siberian wilderness by an unknown assailant in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse. What would normally be an interesting scene filled with tension and mystery is instead rendered stale and tedious by a plethora of wide shots that do little to establish the geography of the chase or the physical relationship of the characters, leading to little tension and an overall feeling of sterility that will plague the film throughout.
After the setup, we are taken back a few months within the narrative and the story properly starts. We find that Mathieu is a cultural ambassador from France to Russia who is making efforts to introduce the region’s traditionally conservative citizens to more liberal ideas. These opening scenes are not bad necessarily, but they don’t do anything to impress. We get all the information that we need, how he is perceived at work (positively, though not exceptionally so), what the politics of the region are like (conservative, as mentioned before), and his relationship with his wife (Elisa Lasowski) and daughter (strained due to the move out of the country), but nothing stands out. It reads like someone fed an AI the first acts of a hundred different movies and had it make one of its own: competent, but uninspired.
Then, finally, the plot kicks in. After Mathieu programs a homoerotic ballet piece at the local culture center, he is detained and informed that the state has accused him of various sex crimes that will land him in prison for decades. It’s obvious from the outset that these charges are fraudulent, and it is here that the film begins its pivot toward the “wronged man” subgenre made popular by Alfred Hitchcock in North by Northwest and other films. Mathieu spends a few days in prison, where he is accosted by both the guards and the cellmates due to the nature of his accusations, before finally being released on parole. This section too doesn’t do anything to invest the audience in Mathieu’s plight through either the writing or the filmmaking, which seems to expect us to sympathize with him on the grounds that he is the protagonist and some version of this story happened in real life. But it doesn’t work. If anything, it serves to remind one of better prison dramas and the ways those filmmakers were able to find humanity in an inhumane environment.
The rest of the movie details Mathieu’s attempted escape across the Mongolian border and into freedom. It is not any better or any worse than the events described here. Joanna Kulig, best known for her leading role in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, enters the narrative as a local woman who starts a flirtation with Mathieu and eventually becomes integral to his escape. If the film has a saving grace, it is in her performance, which restrains itself just enough to hint to the audience at her dissatisfaction with her government’s inner workings while still letting her shine in the film’s more dramatic second half. It would be foolish to criticize Gilles Lellouche as well, who is clearly doing his best to create a fully formed character from the scraps given to him by the script. Both do their best to give their budding romance the chemistry it needs to convince the audience, but like everything else, it comes across as muddled and unsure of itself.
By the time the movie ends, it is unclear what the point of making this film was. It does not teach the audience anything new about how the Russian government works or the state of its international relations, it fails to be an engaging espionage thriller, and it is barely entertaining. Worse than being a bad movie, Kompromat’s most damming failure is in justifying its own existence: after the credits rolled and, in the days following, I couldn’t really find a point in anything I had watched. There are many other movies that tell this kind of story better, and you’re better off watching those.
Kompromat will be released in US theaters and on demand on January 27, 2022.