Cool, composed Turner hits note of suspense

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      French director Denis Dercourt came to last September's Toronto International Film Festival from his home country with tales of box-office lineups there for The Page Turner, his small film about a vengeful young pianist. "It finished second after Pirates of Caribbean for the first week it was released," he said. "We took it to Cannes and it was sold to more than 30 countries."

      There is little in Dercourt's background to suggest that he would ever make a movie that could compete with Hollywood blockbusters. He came to filmmaking after obtaining a degree in philosophy from the University of Paris and a postgraduate diploma from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris. And he has dedicated the better part of his 43 years to classical music, which led to his position as solo violist with the French Symphony Orchestra and to his current job teaching chamber music at the Strasbourg Region National Conservatory.

      The Page Turner, which opens next Friday (May 4), is his fourth feature-length film. Like the others, it is set in the world of orchestral music, following the story of a 10-year-old working-class girl named Mélanie (L'Enfant's Déborah Franí§ois) who fails her piano exam when her concentration is disrupted by one of the judges signing autographs. Several years later, Mélanie is hired to work in the office of a businessman whose wife (Catherine Frot) has had a car accident and needs help looking after their son. She is also in need of a page turner for her comeback as a concert pianist. As Mélanie is very aware, the woman she is working for is the same judge whose rudeness altered the course of her life.

      Dercourt says that when he started writing and directing films, he wanted to bring some of the traits he had learned over the course of his music career to his new métier. He says his process for writing films is similar to the way he writes music and that he expects the actors to adapt to his approach.

      "I think I write a film the way a composer writes a composition," he says. "This film is very linear, like a music piece. What I try to do that is very musical is to bring in tension, then release it, and then bring it back again. I also think that my approach to directing actors is very musical. I tell the actors that they have to be very precise. I say, 'Slow down five percent when you move to the right.' Of course, sometimes they tell me, 'We are not musicians. We cannot begin at Bar 49.'

      "So I listen to that, but I am very clear with them that the playing of the music should look real. Catherine told me beforehand that she knew how to play the 'Turkish March' by Mozart, but it is not enough to play one thing. I chose [the works of Dmitri] Shostakovich for her [character] in the film because his work is very cold and it is easy to imitate it on the piano keys. It was still very hard for her because the coaching was two months at two or three hours a day. But it's good for actors because they want to go into the playing of their character as though they are doing this work."

      Although Catherine Frot had been acting for over 20 years, Franí§ois was just 18 when Dercourt hired her in 2005. L'Enfant, her film debut, had yet to be released. Dercourt knew that whoever played the central part of Mélanie would have to be strong enough to keep the audience interested in the character in a film that has limited dialogue. He says that her talent was apparent.

      "It is the first time in my life that I have seen an actress who reminded me of musical prodigies. I am a teacher so I see a lot of child prodigies. She is very hot inside. She is like a tiger inside, but I wanted her to seem very cold on the outside. If she had been cool inside she would have appeared to have been almost like a robot. I was fortunate that there was this passion inside; I managed it to keep it controlled, but I think the audience can feel that passion."

      Although many films that are popular in Europe don't translate well with North American audiences, Dercourt says that while his film is certainly French, it is close enough to classic American thrillers that he expects it to find an audience on this continent.

      "I feel that this is a physically intuitive film and not an intellectual one. I feel that the film has enough things you can grip onto that are Hitchcock-like. French film is only 40 percent of the market so we are used to Hollywood films. We have our own standards, but for French people I am 'Hollywood'."