Start counting the days until freshman director Julien Leclercq turns up at the helm of a big budget Hollywood action picture. Having just put his name to one of the most striking, distinctive and technical accomplished debut films of recent memory with Chrysalis it is a certainty that men with deep pockets will be calling soon, assuming that he’s not already wading through offers. Leclercq’s debut is an icily precise, coldly beautiful vision of an all-too plausible near future scenario. Seldom has a future world seemed so real on screen.
Albert Dupontel is David Hoffman, a classic hard boiled anti-hero. Hoffman is the classic hard assed cop, prone to violence, unspeaking and unfeeling towards all, particularly since his wife and partner was stabbed to death before his eyes by wanted criminal Dimitri Nicolov. Nicolov is in the business of smuggling people, a disturbing number of whom tend to turn up dead with strange scars around their eyes and their synapses fried. Nicolov remains on the loose since slaying Hoffman’s wife and it is only the thought of bringing him down that keeps the cop going.
Running in parallel to Hofman’s story is that of Manon, a teenaged girl run down in a brutal car wreck. Fortunately Manon’s mother is a leading surgeon engaged in experimental treatments but her recovery process has been long and difficult, leaving her confined to her mother’s clinic for weeks on end and subjected to a battery of bewildering tests. That these two worlds – the human smuggling and the medical research – will meet is obvious enough but how and why is the question.
Chrysalis is simply a visual marvel. Leclercq has a stunning eye for composition and the wisdom to surround himself with gifted collaborators. The cinematography is stunning, the production design even more so. While a good deal of visual effects are employed they are actually far less common than it may first seem thanks to Leclercq having the good sense to accomplish his future vision dominantly through physical sets and rich production design with the digital touches largely reserved for the insertion of future buildings into the real Paris skyline and for the hologramatic surgery effects.
And Leclercq’s smart hires are just as obvious in front of the camera. Dupontel is a monstrously talented actor, perfectly cast here, as are the key female roles (Estelle Lefébure, Marie Guillard, Marthe Keller, Mélanie Thierry). Also filling a key role is acclaimed stunt and martial arts choreographer Alain Figlarz – known for work on the Bourne films and Brotherhood of the Wolf - who fills the villain’s shoes admirably while also choreographing a series of punishing combat sequences between himself and a buffed up Dupontel.
A film that manages to strike a deft balance between popcorn and artistic depth, Chrysalis manages to deftly balance popcorn and arthouse sensibilities. The ideas that drive it are rich and compelling ones of basic human identity, the performances and characters uniformly strong, the action sequences powerfully visceral. The film is a true sci-fi noir, a rarity these days, and one that – with the exception of one major jump in the plot needed to get the story to its end in decent time – shows no indications whatsoever of any first time jitters from Leclercq. Following the extreme disappointment of Enki Bilal’s high concept sci-fi Immortel Leclercq has arrived to show that not only can the French do this, but they can do it with the best of them.