The Film: L’homme qui voulait vivre sa vie [The Big Picture] – France
Misplaced in the thriller genre this film isn’t enjoyable as a literal tale but as an allegory for starting again on your dream, having the fear and then courage to go to the roots of your passion — and make it happen.
The literal tale involves a lawyer who has given up on his dreams of becoming a photographer. He is married with children and they are unhappy. He’s suspicious of her distance and soon realizes she’s having an affair with a neighbor. When she asks for a divorce he goes to the neighbor, it’s casual at first.
The film picks up when the wife’s lover says Paul must have a modern photography setup, monitors, cameras, all the newest toys. The accusation infers that Paul is soulless and his wife is having an affair with the artist he used to be. They tussle in the back garden and the neighbor, Grégoire Kremer, is accidentally killed.
This is where the division between bad story and good allegory comes. Paul decides to take on Kremer’s identity. There isn’t enough depth in the narrative given as to why, it seems miles beyond what we’ve seen of his character, except that we’ve been told his wife hates that he pities himself for haven given up.
Paul poses as Kremer, taking some of his possessions, fakes his own death, and leaves France. He goes back to a place where had taken inspired photographs. He doesn’t take his new digital Canon, he takes the neighbor’s Nikon — but he doesn’t use that either. He buys an old camera, film, solutions to develop his work, and sets up a studio in a rented house with a great view. He pokes around taking new photographs, printing them. He takes some more. And more.
The allegory here as I see it is going back to basics. Strip it down. Find an old way to love something that makes what you’re passionate about new to you. Sometimes the complexities distance us from our own desires, our ability to create never needed much more than a basic tool and some paper — yet somehow we get wrapped up in finding the best tools instead of the best inside us to use them.
Another transition comes when Paul, now fully living under this new identity and talking about himself as if he were Kremer, is taking pictures with the Nikon. He is not himself, he is now who he wanted to be. This subtle thread starts another layer of allegory involving identity.
When Paul’s photos are picked up by the local newspaper, he gets the chance to have a gallery opening. But he’s concerned about photos being taken of him to publicize the event. His paranoia takes hold at the opening when the newspaper editor, a friend, says to him “Look at them. They believe your story. They even by the idea your talent only emerged here. So.. enjoy it. Enjoy. Enjoy. Enjoy. What difference does it make?”
This speaks to me about art and identity. If you’re creating, if your passionate, and you’re working your craft — who can tell who is the “real” artist and who is a fake? If you’re interested in more on this part in particular, check out the pseudo documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010).
Yet another twist comes when Paul decides to leave this identity behind as well and is smuggled aboard a ship. He’s told to stay in his room but he takes his camera out with him and photographs the crew beating some men up. When they strip a man and throw him overboard, Paul protests — revealing his location. He hides the film on his person before they throw him overboard.
The crewman who brought him on board secretly releases a lifeboat into the water in the ships berth. Paul and another man reach the boat. Paul holds onto this man, tightly. It cuts to the photos of the men being thrown overboard being sold — by the other survivor. Paul smiles at him as they part ways and the film ends. This was a little complication for the neatly packaged allegory (what was it adding?) and its timing in the film only confirmed my decision that the surface was only a mask for the concepts underneath.
I think there are a few ways to look at this last portion in relation to the themes of passion and identity. It comes at a moment when photography is building for Paul, a museum in London wants to exhibit his work and the curator says he will be put in front of the media to promote it. In one sense this spurs him to burn the car he’d been using and take off but in another it is the rejection of the distractions that would take him away from the passion he’s found in creation and the person he’s tried to become.
I still resent any implication that his earlier failures had anything to do with his wife and children. Although I think the movie does try to say it was Paul’s choice not to pursue photography, faking his death says more.
Someone mentioned in the book his wife is far more antagonistic and Paul suffers at work to provide her the freedom to follow her dreams. Congratulations to director Eric Lartigau and his crew of writers for whittling most of that one-sidedness away. If anything Paul seemed somewhat selfish which may be one reason it worked for me as an allegory, as a “what if” exploration. What do we need to create?
On Good Reads a user posted an observation that writer Douglas Kennedy’s protagonist often describes “really great photographers as being passive observers who have freed themselves from the need to obsessively prod at the composition hoping that it will become more artful” I see The Big Picture as a struggle with passion, art, and identity — themes that have heavily been entering my life this year.
Which makes it a perfect way to end Advent 2013. I probably don’t need to fake my own death but I will be asking myself — what do you need to create?
The Food: Blue Cheese and Toasted Almond Popcorn
Inspired by this recipe from Emeril and the desire for a savory popcorn with some body.
Blue cheese and popcorn are an amazing match. It’s a shocker there aren’t more ways to indulge in this combination.
- 1/4 cup popcorn kernels
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
- 1/3 cup sliced almonds
- 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
In a skillet on medium toast the almonds. Remove the almonds and melt the butter in the same pan.
Make the popcorn according to your favorite method. Remove the unpopped kernels and place the popcorn in a large metal bowl with the almonds.
While popcorn is hot, add the blue cheese and pour the butter over the popcorn mix. Add the pepper, onion and garlic powder. Serve immediately.
If you want to add herbes de provence, or fresh herbs like chives, tarragon, or even rosemary and lemon zest. Serve with a dry white wine or dirty martinis and sliced pears.
MERRY MERRY CHRISTMAS!