Santiago Amigorena's Quelques Jours En Septembre is set in the days leading up the infamous events of September 11, and according to the TIFF programmers, is a "high-voltage tale of espionage, betrayal and financial hijinks". Methinks the programmers gave the film too much credit in that regard. Yes, there's some espionage, betrayal, and financial hijinks, but to call it "high-voltage" is to dramatically oversell the film.
Juliette Binoche plays Irene, an agent who supposedly works with for the French government, but whose allegiances often seem a bit on the blurry side. Her latest mission is to rendezvous with the children of a former colleague/American agent named Elliot (Nick Nolte), who has been also working undercover for some decidedly non-American individuals. Elliot wishes to contact his children one last time before disappearing forever, but Irene's mission is daunting from the very getgo... and the kids aren't too much of a help.
Elliot's daughter Orlando hates him for abandoning her in France and returning to America when she was just a child. On the other hand, his adopted American son David thinks the world of Elliot. Orlando is down to earth and rabidly anti-American, whereas David is considerably more laidback, more interested in eating fine French cuisine, and loves reading poetry.
Suffice to say, the two of them, along with Irene (who has plenty of her own quirks) make for quite a group. And if that weren't enough, an assassin named William Pound (John Turturro) is hot on their trail, hoping they'll lead him to Elliot, who he's planning to kill for both professional and personal reasons.
The film is hardly a nail-biter, and more resembles a dysfunctional family comedy than anything that smacks of international intrigue (though what spy business is contains does feel refreshingly stripped down and de-James Bond-ified). Quelques Jours En Septembre begins on September 5, and slowly counts down to the fateful day; while we viewers know what is about to happen, the characters remain blissfully unaware of the impending tragedy. Indeed, when it surfaces that Elliot has potentially sensitive information concerning foreign investments, there's no reason for Irene and the others to suspect terrorism -- which you'd think would lend the movie a certain measure of foreboding and doom.
Alas, the screenplay (also by Amigorena) chooses to insert any number of quirky rabbit trails and clunky humorous asides, undercutting any potential sense of urgency with yet another dysfunctional outing, some barbed exchanges between Orlando and David concerning American cultural decadence, a touch of sexual tension between the three travelers, and even a pillow-fight for good measure.
Perhaps Quelques Jours En Septembre's gravest mistake is its handling of Turturro's Pound. Turns out, he's just as quirky as those he's pursuing, perhaps moreso, even going so far as to recite William Blake's "The Tyger" after gutting some guy. And I suppressed a groan the first time Pound calls his psychoanalyst after killing someone, complaining about father figures and double entendres in the French language. Yes, we get it: Pound is mentally unhinged. However, these attempts to turn him into something of a comedic-yet-ruthless individual serves only to ruin the character and diminish his threat -- yet another way the film shoots itself in the foot.
Quelques Jours En Septembre is certainly a lovely film. Much of the film takes place in Venice, where Irene and the kids flee after their initial meeting with Elliot goes south, and Amigorena captures the city in all of its splendor.
Amigorena also does interesting things with the film's visuals, allowing scenes to drift and characters to walk in and out of focus. On the one hand, such an approach can be explained by Irene's poor vision, but I prefer to think of it as Amigorena's attempt to capture the moral uncertainties and ambiguities inherent in the professional world that Irene, Elliot, and William inhabit, and which the children slowly find themselves being drawn into.
Unfortunately, whenever the film settles into a contemplative and thoughtful mood, along comes another clunky bit of a dialogue, quirky interaction, or pretentious use of poetry that ruins the mood and makes the film seem considerably less than it should have been.