Cannes 2017 Review: The Hard Truth About BASED ON A TRUE STORY

Polanksi’s toothless return underwhelms.

As the sordid past of Roman Polanski continues to be a central feature of discussion on the other side of the Atlantic, it’s fairly fascinating how much of a non-issue it is here in France. Here the maker of Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby is nothing short of royalty, and the late inclusion of a film of his out of the main competition was met with great anticipation.

So taken as simply a film, divorced from all decades of drama that continues to resurface, how is Based On A True Story?

Unfortunately, it’s not very good at all.

The most infuriating part of the film is its toothlessness. Despite the opportunity for something both sordid and sublime, the story by Polanski and his writing collaborator Olivier Assayas feels underbaked. We meet Delphine (Polanski’s wife and regular collaborator Emmanuelle Seigner) at a book fair, amid close-up faces of admiring fans gushing about their love of her latest novel that is dedicated to her mother who committed suicide. Forced to cut short the session, we soon learn that Delphine is gripped both with depression and an inability to work on her latest project, tying herself in knots trying to put words to page.

She reencounters one of these fans at a party, a woman named “Her” for “Hermione” (or “Elle” for “Elizabeth” in French). Her (Eva Green) is a ghost writer, a career where one sublimates one’s own voice into that of another. Soon Her pushes at Delphine to drop her current project and delve deeper into something more personal.

From here the details of the plot ruin what little fun there is to be had. Suffice to say there’s a lot of Assayas at play here, with characters questioning their sanity and whether what we’re encountering can be considered entirely of this world. 

This is a subject ripe for exploration, and even the salacious chemistry between Signer and Green is teased early on. It’s thus all the more surprising that the film feels both neutered and aimless. The setting isn’t particularly well staged, the performances often feel stilted and forced. There are a few hoary cinema tricks like a jump scare that feel carnivalesque rather than truly thrilling, and one can’t help but feel ambivalent about trying to work out the ending’s supposed complexity. 

So much of the film is spent in waiting, characters staring into space or hands hovering over keyboards. We wait too, anticipating at least some flourish from a once great master of cinematic manipulation. Instead we have something that would make for a boring TV show, much less a film shown at a major film festival. Even Alexandre Desplat’s score feels like a bunch of cues he had kicking around on his hard drive, and the musical themes can’t help elevate what’s already collapsed.

The biggest thrill of the entire film is watching Green beat the shit out of a food processor, but even that is somehow undermined by her meekly replacing it with the same model a few days later. It’s like none of this really matters, so we don’t really care about trying to figure out just what is going on and for whom. The so-called “mystery” at the heart of the film, heightened by some of Assayas’ more egregious tendencies and lacking Polanski’s trademark intelligence and eroticism, fails to live up to anything more than a tepid mess.

Based on A True Story isn't even bad enough to be an interesting failure. It’s one of the most vanilla works ever from this esteemed director, and for that it may be an even greater disappointment than if he’d tried and failed at something far more engaging.