Agatha Christie is universally recognized as a master of the well-mannered murder mystery. Towards Zero (aka L'heure Zero) represents a 2007 effort by director Pascal Thomas to transport one of her typically deceptive plots to France. The film's slow and deliberate pace builds well to the inevitable murder. Unfortunately, the proceedings then fall flat as a plodding investigation and surprise denouement take much of the wind out of the movie's sails.
As befits the genre, the film opens with us being introduced to numerous characters that will eventually turn out to be murderers, victims or red herrings. There's the man who jumps off a cliff only to survive and realize that he may have a greater purpose in life. There's the girl who confesses to thievery even though she is innocent. Then there's Guillaume (Melvil Poupaud). He's a smarmy and privileged type with a cranky wife, Caroline (Laura Smet) and an aloof ex-wife, Aude (Chiara Mastoianni) whom he still pines for. He's headed to a French seaside mansion for a family reunion sponsored by his elderly Aunt Camilla (Danielle Darrieux).
After Guillaume arrives at the mansion with Caroline, we start to worry there may not be enough room for everyone and their baggage. You see, Aude has been invited in addition to Caroline's friend, Fred (Xavier Thiam) who doesn't seem to have the best of intentions towards Guillaume. Camilla's assistant, Marie (Alessandra Martines) and family friend, Thomas (Clement Thomas) round out the house guests. With all concerned parties in position, the game is afoot. The game of course is...MURDER (cue dramatic music).
Camilla organizes a family dinner so she can see her old friend, Trevoz (Jacques Sereys) who happens to be a prosecutor. During the meal, things get a bit heated as Trevoz tells the story of an unpunished crime from decades ago. Eyes narrow and pulses quicken as everyone tries to decipher the intent of the tale. Soon after, two of the people at the dinner table are dead While one murder is slick and indirect, the other is savage and bloody enough to make up for it. It's a stroke of luck that Inspector Bataille (Francois Morel) is in the area on vacation. He'll have to set aside his suntan lotion and solve these crimes most heinous.
Towards Zero gets a lot of things right in its first half. Let's start with the title itself. As Trevoz explains it, most murder mysteries only start once a murder has been committed. However, the convergence of circumstances leading up to the murder can be just as fascinating as the investigation that follows. If this point of lethal convergence were considered the zero hour, then every victim in a murder mystery is simply counting down towards zero. This is an interesting spin on why the buildup of a mystery is infinitely more engrossing than the resolution itself. Unfortunately it is especially true of this film.
There is a definite art to creating red herrings in a story without frustrating the audience. Pascal Thomas walks this line quite delicately by adopting an unusually slow and deliberate pace during the set up of the film. He ensures that we learn just enough about the characters to doubt their motives but not enough to discard any of them as potential suspects during the inevitable investigation. I also admired the way he set up subtle elements such as off-the-cuff remarks and seemingly insignificant subplots only to have them pay off much later in the film.
Given how well the film held my interest until the murder, it was truly disappointing to watch the dramatic tension rapidly uncoil as Inspector Bataille began his investigation. Coming off like a cut-rate hybrid of Colombo and Clouseau, his techniques were too low-key and pedestrian to maintain a reasonable level of suspense. Perhaps the most frustrating element was the manner in which the mystery was resolved. A character who was shown early in the film, only to be forgotten for much of its duration, shows up deus ex machine style to hand the answer to Bataille. Besides undermining the purpose of Bataille's character it has the effect of insulting the viewer's intelligence.