The original French title of The Big Picture — an adaptation of a novel by American expatriate writer Douglas Kennedy — means "the man who wanted to live his life." That's pointedly ironic, since this existential thriller is about a person who seeks personal freedom by becoming somebody else.
Aside from the crying baby who wakes him in the opening scene, Paul (Romain Duris) seems to have an enviable life. The junior partner in a successful Paris law firm, Paul looks like a movie star — perpetually unshaven, with a mop of black hair and the pantherlike presence of Duris, France's most feral film actor. His wife, Sarah (Marina Fois), is smart and beautiful, and his two young sons are cute.
But Sarah thinks that Paul neglects her and has undermined her dream of becoming a writer. There are hints that she's having an affair. It's not a good time for Paul's mentor (Catherine Deneuve, in a cameo) to announce that she'll be gone soon and is leaving the firm to him.
Paul doesn't want it. What he wanted, and still does, was to be a photographer. It galls him that his longtime neighbor, Greg (Eric Ruf), has pursued that career, even if he's not very successful at it. Paul's annoyance with Greg increases when he notices that the guy shares certain small intimacies with Sarah.
Paul confronts Greg, and in the scuffle the latter accidentally dies. Although there's no suggestion that Paul has ever practiced criminal law, he turns out to be something of an expert at disposing of bodies and switching identities. Within a few days, Paul has convinced everyone that he's dead, and that Greg has gone on assignment to Eastern Europe.
Using Greg's name and a new phony passport, Paul settles in shabbily scenic Montenegro. He begins taking pictures of local workers, which are spotted by the French expat editor (Niels Arestrup) of a local newspaper. Soon, Paul/Greg has become the celebrated photographer that both once yearned to be. But his sudden success could blow his cover.
Kennedy's The Big Picture was published in 1997, when there wasn't as much personal information flowing across the Internet. The movie is set in more recent times and acknowledges the existence of search engines. But director and co-writer Eric Lartigau is more interested in Paul's state of mind than in the practical aspects of stealing another person's identity.
The director does methodically depict the mechanics of some of Paul's actions, whether he's working in his darkroom or disposing of Greg's body. But the primary purpose of such sequences is to convey his protagonist's obsessiveness. Once Paul decides on a course of action, he never abandons it — even when it seemingly leads only to oblivion.
Although it includes a few tense moments, the movie is not primarily a thriller. The final scene will disappoint anyone expecting a major blowup or meltdown; it's simply a small irony, turning on a marginal character's moment of identity swapping.
The Big Picture has been compared to The Talented Mr. Ripley, the twice-filmed Patricia Highsmith novel about a sociopath who kills and then impersonates a rich acquaintance. But in spirit it's closer to Michelangelo Antonioni's 1975 The Passenger, with Jack Nicholson as an existential adventurer who poses as a dead stranger.
Toward the movie's end, the mood becomes increasingly nightmarish, culminating in a violent scene aboard a ship on the Adriatic. The sheer intensity of such moments is a large part of what makes The Big Picture powerful. But even when Paul is in physical danger, his greatest struggles are internal.