An impressively old-school yet very modern crime thriller that keeps you guessing throughout its many twists and turns.
Very much a one-man-band effort for illustrator Alexis Bruchon – whose name pops up everywhere on the credits, from writing and directing to art directing and even composing the music – The Woman with Leopard Shoes is a hugely impressive debut film. A tense, twisting and smart crime drama (perhaps not the neo-noir that some have suggested, unless you class every crime movie as a noir) where nothing is quite as it seems.
As such, it’s a hard film to discuss without potential spoilers – and for once, I think that giving too much away in advance will spoil the experience of seeing this for the first time. Paul Bruchon (a relation, we can assume, of the director) is a burglar who is hired by a mysterious woman to carry out a robbery at a country house, in order to retrieve a mysterious box that she wants. The nameless burglar is forced to cover his face with a hood at their meeting, and given oddly specific instructions about exactly where the box is; enough to perhaps set a few alarm bells ringing. Nevertheless, the robbery seems to be going without a hitch until the owner of the house returns with a full party of people – including the mysterious woman with leopard shoes who had hired the burglar. Trapped in a study, cunningly hiding from the guests who walk in and out of the room to deposit coats, it looks as though our hero is in for a long stay. But things take a sinister turn as he finds a dead body in the room with him, and then is left a note from his employer, with her phone number. For the remainder of the film, the burglar must avoid detection, communicating with the woman via text message and searching for information that might help him should he be discovered. As time goes on, it becomes clear that this is not the simple breaking and entering job that he had expected, and there are games afoot that he is now caught in the middle of.
None of this hopefully reveals where the film’s twists and turns will take it. If you are surprised that things are not what they seem, then you probably haven’t seen many crime films – it’s the hows and whys that matter, and these are slowly revealed throughout.
Paul Brechon is on-screen for pretty much the whole film, but doesn’t say a word. Instead, all the dialogue from him is expressed through text message – a thoroughly modern form of communication in a film that plays with the feel of a classic thriller – and his facial expressions, which reveal the desperation, confusion and increasing understanding at play. He makes for a good sympathetic character – a criminal, perhaps, but a very small-scale one compared to the people he finds himself up against. How he pieces together the clues and makes a plan for escape is smartly handled – little moments of flashback and intuition that never seem too contrived or unconvincing. Notably, the film has shot the text messages and written clues in English as well as French (there’s a brief moment where a text message flashes back to the original French in a singular spot of sloppy editing), which makes sense – while not a film without spoken dialogue, the only people who speak are the unseen party host, the woman with leopard shoes and other party guests, and the dialogue is sparse. Extensive subtitles would be an unnecessary distraction in this film, and so kudos to director Brechon for shooting these moments in both French and English.
We don’t see anyone else, apart from the murder victim, other than as feet seen by the burglar. This anonymity helps build the tension and the sense of claustrophobia, especially in the very tense early scenes where the burglar is desperately trying to find somewhere to hide as the party returns to the house. But Brechon avoids being too gimmicky – if his characters need to speak, they do. And a remarkable level of threat and mystery is created simply with the sight of feet pausing before leaving a room – we, like the main character, are unsure just what these people might have seen and what they know. If this is lockdown filmmaking – and it might be – then it is an admirable example of how to use social distancing restrictions without either compromising a story or reverting to Zoom-based narratives.
The film is shot in crisp, dense black and white – a stylistic gimmick, maybe, but one that the film needs. This is a story told in shadow and light, and colour would be too much of a distraction. The use of shafts of light and inky, enveloping shadow in the film is impressive (and certainly why the film has been described as ‘noir’), and not only gives the film a very powerful visual style but actually helps tell the story. At times, the screen is almost entirely black, and this adds to the crushing sense of enclosure that surrounds the character. The music is also a classic, timeless crime cinema score, complete with a blasting Fifties opening theme that announces the movie with an audacious confidence.
The Woman with Leopard Shoes is that rare thing in modern cinema – an unpretentious, no-nonsense and intelligent thriller that has no agenda beyond getting your heart racing. Given the minimalist nature of the film, it moves at an impressive pace and never becomes less than engrossing. Given the increasing number of modern crime movies that not only have to (sometimes literally) spell out their social agenda and loudly call attention to themselves throughout, this is a real breath of fresh air – smart, stylish and confident, but never forgetting that it is, first and foremost, a work of entertainment. Brechon takes the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach to classic crime cinema, and his film is all the better for it.
On the basis of this debut, Brechon seems set to go onto bigger things – it certainly doesn’t feel like a movie made by a first-timer, and if enough people actually see this film, it’s hard to see him not being snapped up for more expensive projects. It’s hard to imagine anything glossier being able to match the elegant style and simple complexity of this film.
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