A serious but mild-mannered civil servant with a drinking problem gets caught up in a web of intrigue and collusion between the state and private intelligence services.
In a nutshell, that’s the plot of Scribe, director Thomas Kruithof’s debut film.
Perhaps better than other films about spooks and their victims, it gives a sense of the horror of being caught up in events out of your control.
Duval, played by François Cluzet, is fired from an anonymous office job. He is offered work as a transcriber by a mysterious figure, Clément, played by Denis Podalydès.
Duval writes down tapped phone conversations which become increasingly sinister in nature. He gains an insider’s knowledge of how the intelligence industry conducts its murderous business.
Murders are explained away in the press as people killing themselves. Duval’s horror at knowing the truth, and not being able to escape his knowledge, is riveting.
The individuals who live in this world are shown as compromised bullies and cowards.
The violence is all the more shocking when seen through Duval’s eyes. That’s largely down to his background as a desk worker.
Watching the film, you get a strong sense of the impact of decisions and actions taken from behind desks in anonymous offices.
The horror in Duval’s eyes as he realises what he has become implicated in, and later directly participates in, gives a sense of how people react when forced to face the consequences of their actions.
Elements of classic English satire come through in the film.
We are shown the events through the eyes of a wide-eyed innocent who can’t extricate themselves from them, though Duval increasingly gains agency as the picture continues.
Undertones of colonialism and imperialism shape the film. The backdrop for the drama on screen is the kidnapping of three “contractors” in Libya, presumably oil engineers or some related type of work.
Also woven into the background is an election campaign. One of the candidate’s slogans is, “France is back,” a reference to US President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan.
The easy nature of the relationship between the state and private security firms is nicely depicted.
The interplay between the state’s control of armed force and Clément’s firm’s ability to go beyond the law in gathering intelligence are used to expose the weaknesses of each.
Viewers also get an idea of how both these forces answer to a higher power—the politicians and the bosses.
They fight for their own survival by catering and anticipating the whims and needs of those at the very top of society.
The film does a good job of portraying neither of the institutions as all-powerful.
They seem that way to Duval at the start of the film, as they do to many people in reality. But that changes as events unravel and career out of control.
Scribe may not stand up alongside spook classics such as John Le Carré’s Smiley’s People, but it does justice to the genre.