Mortal Transfer is a sort of darkly humorous French neo-noir meditation on the purpose of psychoanalysis. If that sounds a bit obscure, it is. Mortal Transfer is an obscurantist film, but it is also one that is subtle, funny and engaging. While not for all tastes, it has plenty to offer the more discerning viewer.
The film revolves around Michel, played by Jean-Hugues Anglade, best known to American audiences probably for his performance as Nikita's boyfriend Marco in La Femme Nikita. Michel is a psychiatrist, who is dragged into a web of intrigue by a particularly disturbed client, the beautiful Olga, played by Helene de Fougerolles. Olga has a stormy marriage with gangster Max Kubler (Yves Renier). She refuses to have sex with him, but derives great pleasure from the beatings he delivers, mostly at her incessant prompting. She flirts with Michel, and indeed with almost any man she meets, exudes sexual energy, flaunts her body and the bruises that Max leaves on it.
The problems for Michel really start when he falls asleep during one of Olga's sessions, something he does often, and wakes to find her dead of strangulation on the couch. For various reasons, many neurotic, some almost reasonable, he does not immediately call the police. He may have even killed her himself in a daze. Instead, in a panic and with more patients knocking on the door, he shoves the body under the couch and continues with his day. Much of the pitch black humor derives from his efforts to rid himself of the body, and his dealing with Max, who believes that Michel has conspired with Olga to steal several million dollars from him.
A lot of the film is spent on the therapist's couch. Michel goes to his own therapist, Dr. Zlibovic (Robert Hirsch), and relates his problems, much as his own flock of quirkily demented patients relate their problems to him, at times with a corpse directly underneath them. The film is filled with odd coincidences, symbolic gestures and images fraught with meaning. That meaning lurks just under the surface. Director Jean-Jacques Beineix is never straightforward with his thoughts, but at the same time does not frustrate his audience by being unnecessarily opaque. The film is more of a meditation than a traditionally structured drama or study in conflict. In the end, it isn't terribly important who killed Olga, or who has the money. The journey, and what we learn about Michel along the way, is what provides the emotional satisfaction.
Beineix presents the story, and the various odd characters, from a delightfully off kilter perspective. Everything operates on dream logic, and dreams themselves play a big part in the film. Even though Michel's actions, not to mention the craziness and improbability of everyone else's, do not make sense in the context of the normal workaday world, in the world of Mortal Transfer they fit perfectly. Anglade's dry yet neurotic performance contrasts very nicely to the bombast of de Fougerolles and the slightly weirder than normal performances of the rest of the cast. The film moves slowly, allowing Beineix to spend sufficient time with Michel, and with his patients, and the steady police detective, and with everyone, so that real depths and nuance can be pulled out. The deliberate pace does not detract from the experience, but it will require a viewer who delights more in introspection than explosions. Mortal Transfer is a thoughtful couple of hours, not a popcorn thrill ride. But it is definitely worth watching.
Jean-Jacques Beineix with Tim Rhys for Move Maker Magazine