A woman clutches the lifeless body of her son and wails in despair. She fights against the doctor who tries to remove her, and physically harms herself when she is eventually pulled away. Her anguish and pain echo throughout the hospital as we see her eventually admitted to a psyche ward. Her grief engulfs us as we wonder what she will do to avenge her son.
For fans of the thriller/horror genre, The Assistant starts in a familiar way. A dark and stormy night, a distracted husband (Malik Zidi) racing his pregnant wife (Sabrina Seyvecou) to the hospital, a jaywalker (Adrien Friob), and an accident. In this film, however, there is no hit and run. The husband reports the accident, but unfortunately the young man still dies. We meet his grief-stricken mother, Marie-France (Nathalie Baye), as she processes this horrific accident and figures out what she will do next. The Assistant takes another familiar thriller turn as we catch up to Marie-France 9 years later while she applies for a temporary job at a firm as an assistant to Thomas; the man who killed her son. Marie-France worms her way into Thomas’s family and gets closer and closer to Léo (Jean-Stan Du Pac), Thomas’s son born the night her own was killed. She eventually marries Thomas’s widowed father (Johan Leysen) and while some of her behavior signals several red flags about her intentions, she still manages to charm most of the family. That is, until her true intentions become known in a bloody series of events leading to the climax.
Director and writing team Christophe Ali and Nicolas Bonilauri masterfully build tension throughout The Assistant, starting with the fact that we already know who Marie-France is while we see her getting closer and closer to the family. However, we also don’t know the entirety of her plan; all we know is it’s 9 years in the making, adding to the mounting tension throughout the film. Jérôme Lemonnier’s score helps create the atmosphere by using the music to reflect the emotional journeys of the characters throughout the film. In moments, mournful and melancholy piano plays as the characters process their grief and sorrow. At other times, high pitched violins audibly escalate the tension that we are feeling as Marie-France’s plan advances.
In this writer’s opinion, Baye’s performance is the highlight of the film. She deftly toes the line between the helpful, caring grandmotherly type and a cold-blooded killer. We feel her love for Léo and her longing for it to be reciprocated, but we also sense her obsession and ruthlessness often in the same scene. She starts the film with such a strong emotional reaction, and yet, as the story progresses, she develops a sense of calm and purpose. The grounded calm energy exists even when she is doing horrific things. Despite this, she still manages to garner sympathy from us for a while because her grief and trauma felt so real, and her longing to have a son again is something we can all understand. Her methods, however, are extreme and horrific in the end. Baye finds an excellent balance in her performance in a role that could have been played too over the top.
The Assistant did feel a bit long in this writer’s opinion, and some moments tended towards the unbelievable end of the spectrum. For example, we have to believe that Thomas never recognized Marie-France, despite having killed her son. Also, perhaps this movie is in the end a bit too reliant on familiar and frequently used thriller/horror tropes. This film is great for lovers of French cinema and thrillers with a slower burn. Those who are not fans of subtitles and those tired of familiar and slightly over the top thrillers should avoid this film.
Jean-Stan Du Pac
About the Author: Taryn Smith
Taryn Smith, Chicago Communities Associate Editor, graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago's BFA Performance program in 2011. After graduating, she co-founded Realize Theatre Group and served as Executive Director for the company. She has filled numerous roles while with RTG both on and off stage including making her playwriting debut with her play America, Inc . She has worked as a stage manage, designer, director, and actor. Outside of the theatre world, Taryn is a licensed massage therapist.
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