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Film Review: The Translators (Les traducteurs)

Updated: Dec 4, 2021

Drawing inspiration from the real-life story behind the translation of Dan Brown's Inferno, Régis Roinsard's The Translators (Les traducteurs) introduces us to a group of translators brought to a secure bunker in France to simultaneously translate the final novel in the acclaimed Dedalus trilogy. Toiling away without their phones, or any way to contact the outside world, the translators work day and night - within the confines of the bunker - to ensure the simultaneous global release of Oscar Brach's latest book, The Man Who Did Not Want To Die (L'homme qui ne voulais pas mourir), which will conclude his Millenium-esque saga.

Starting with a mysterious fire in a French bookshop, the film quickly shifts scene to the Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse) where Angstrom Editions CEO, Éric Angstrom (played by the suitably slick Lambert Wilson), is announcing his acquisition of the final book in the acclaimed Dedalus trilogy. Its mysterious author, Oscar Brach, eschews public appearances or recognition, but Angstrom explains that he 'got the better of him' and the book is now scheduled for simultaneous worldwide publication in March the following year.

From there, we are introduced to our cast of international translators, as each of them is ferried one by one to a secluded French manor, which houses the bunker that will be their home for the next two months. Owned by a wealthy Russian oligarch, this doomsday shelter is the perfect setting for Angstrom to carry out his unorthodox plans to maintain the cover of secrecy and stay on schedule. With a team of translators from England, Russia, Italy, Denmark, Spain, Germany, China, Portugal, and Greece, they get to work on the first twenty pages of this latest thriller.

Our group of translators soon realise the gravity of their situation - working tirelessly under armed guard, and never receiving more than twenty pages at a time - and things get steadily worse when the first ten pages of the book are released online. The publisher receives a ransom demand for five million euros, or they will release the next 100 pages the following day. This sets off a witch-hunt within the bunker, as Angstrom ceases translation and subjects his team to a series of humiliating searches, which soon becomes a race against time to unearth the culprit before the book is released in its entirety.

I don't want to give too much away, but taking the story of Inferno's translation as its basis, Régis Roinsard, and his co-writers, Daniel Presley and Romain Compingt (who also worked with him on Populaire), have crafted a clever tale of suspense that is equal parts The Usual Suspects and The Mystery of Henri Pick (Le mystère Henri Pick), which came out at a similar time. Using a sophisticated combination of flashbacks and flash-forwards - with the events that take place in the bunker firmly at its core - the film slowly reveals itself as a commentary on the modern-day publishing machine, wrapped in the guise of a taut thriller.

With their veneration of the literary tradition, it's no surprise that French bookshops are classified as 'essential businesses' - especially during this latest lockdown - and it's this love which shines through in the film. There are direct references to literary classics such as James Joyce's Ulysses and Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, as well as the work of Agatha Christie. In that regard it calls to mind Olivier Assayas' recent film, Non-Fiction (Double vies), which was also a thinly veiled commentary on the French publishing industry and its place in the modern world. Both films question the ethics and responsibility of publishers, as well as the place of digital books and accessibility in these current times. As one of the characters (played by the impressive Patrick Bauchau) says, "Writing is not for oneself ... people need good books."

In moments like this, each of the actors makes skilled use of their limited screen-time to bring life to the large group of characters in this ensemble piece. It's hard to introduce so many people and make them stand out or distinguish themselves, yet between the the actors and the script, they do a remarkable job. I was particularly impressed by Alex Lawther, in the role of English translator Alex Goodman, who becomes one of our key point-of-view characters. Reading about his experience, Lawther was a long-time Francophile and a fan of French cinema (as all the greats are), and became fluent in the language in order to take on this film. Not only does he provide our way into the story, but he provides insight into the other characters as well.

Of particular note is Olga Kurylenko as the Russian translator, Katerina Anisinova. A self-confessed obsessive of the novels, her whole persona appears to be based around the book's femme fatale, Rebecca, who she feels is the crux of the series. She and Alex chat at length about the book, and bond over a mutual appreciation of James Joyce's influence upon the text with his stream-of-consciousness writing style. If you're only familiar with Kurylenko as the Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, then it's a pleasant eye-opener to discover this actress who is doing more and more extraordinary work within the French market.

For those who enjoy a good book and/or good film, The Translators is a tasty palate cleanser. Taking something as banal as the translation of mass-produced fiction for its inspiration, it leads you to consider the mechanics of what goes on beyond the scenes and how it can twist a story's intent, as well as those of the people behind it. It's the kind of film I would show to one of my friends who isn't already enraptured by French cinema, as a kind of 'gateway drug'. In fact, the more I reflect on that, and the inclusion/role of other films in this edition of the French Film Festival UK, the more I'm impressed by its overall curation. If you haven't had a chance to engage with fff@home yet, then this weekend provides the perfect opportunity with both The Translators and In Bed With Victoria.


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