Sometimes you just happen upon a film that looks interesting. You watch it, you like it and you talk to a few people about it, but for some reason it just doesn't catch on. A couple of years later you are reminded of the film and it turns out it's still as obscure as the first time you watched it. Well, that's pretty much what happened to Richard Berry's The Black Box [La Boîte Noire], a sweet little French genre film that, for whatever reason, just didn't make a splash.
Richard Berry is best known for his work as an actor (if you're familiar with French cinema that is), but he's also had quite some success directing films. His most acclaimed work to date is The Immortal (starring Jean Reno), yet right before that one he directed The Black Box, a very typical, by the numbers but well-executed genre film. It's not a film that will dazzle you with its novel approach or unique direction, instead The Black Box is quite simply a modern mystery done right.
The early '00s saw a small bump in mystery/thrillers. In fact, The Black Box is not unlike Marc Forsters' Stay (also released in 2005), another film that deals with a protagonist who is battling his own memories and finding himself stuck inside a world that doesn't quite feel like the reality he remembers. These films aren't so much about unravelling the mystery (the twist at the end is rarely of any value), instead they draw their strength from the unsettling journey towards their big reveal.
The Black Box starts with Arthur waking up inside a hospital bed, reciting disjointed words. The doctors tell him he's recovering from a serious car crash. After a short stay in the hospital Arthur is deemed fit enough to go home, but not before his nurse gives him a black book containing all the notes she scribbled down while Arthur was in a coma. She tells him it's a rare glimpse inside the unconscious part of his own mind. When Arthur comes home and finds certain things out of order (like a brother who is gone missing), he reaches for the black booklet and starts his journey in search of answers.
Visually the film is split into two even parts. The first half of the films is a bit more daring and disorienting, featuring some interesting editing tricks and a darkened, slightly surreal look (there's a little Jean-Pierre Jeunet in there, though the overall effect is more modern-looking). The second half looks a little plainer in comparison, but the bottom line quality is still there. Overall The Black Box is an attractive film that uses its visual tricks wisely, but it does lack the clear and confident hand of a true artist.
The soundtrack is less defining though and you may even find it difficult to remember afterwards. The film sports a pretty generic score, a series of musical pieces that do little besides providing a cure against silence. It's not exactly a bad score mind, it's functional and never really intrudes or irritates, but at the same time a film like this could have benefitted so much more from a tighter, more demanding selection of tracks. It's a missed opportunity, though hardly surprising.
The acting was on point. Much of the pressure rests on José Garcia's shoulders, luckily he performs well as the ever more freaked out lead of the film. He is helped by a solid cast of secondary characters, though most of them have little more than a single scene to prove their worth. The only notable exception is Marion Cotillard, who was still doing fun genre films back then, rather than the prestigious commercial fluff she is known for now. While none of the actors makes a truly great impression, The Black Box is the kind of film that doesn't really need stellar performances to succeed.
Films like these are at their best when the mystery is kept intact, sadly The Black Box is a little too eager to reveal at least part of its twist early on. By the halfway point, most of the mystery is already cleared up and from there on out the film is just slowly filling in the blanks, with one final twist to tie everything together. Berry could've stretched it a bit, then again that might've been commercial suicide for a smaller genre film like this. This second time around though, I could feel the potential for an overall better film lingering.
The Black Box is a film for loving genre fans. If you're hoping for a mind-blowing twist at the end, original characters with plenty of emotional depth or just any form of sizeable surprise really, this probably isn't the film for you. It's a film that thrives on atmosphere while going through a set of familiar motions. Everything hinges on the execution, which makes it a little hit or miss and not as easy to recommend, unless you're in the mood for a slick mindbender and don't mind some of the familiar genres tropes along the way.