From Régis Roinsard, Les traducteurs (The Translators) is a stylish and sometimes fun mystery story, with some heist elements thrown in for good measure. However, it’s so preoccupied with dramatic reveals and building intrigue that it starts to border on the parodic.
The plot centres on the release of the third book in a bestselling series — “Deadalus” — by an anonymous French author, written under the pseudonym Oscar Brach. Eric Angstrom, the publisher and only person to have met Brach, plans to capitalise on the voracious hunger for the new work by launching the final book simultaneously in the languages of the major markets. Angstrom hires nine translators to achieve this and whisks them to a mansion in France, down into an apocalypse bunker replete with luxuries. However, their working conditions are draconian, as they’re only given 20 pages a day under the supervision of armed security to prevent leaks. When the first 10 pages leak online, with the threat of further releases unless ransom demands are met, distrust begins to grow amongst Angstrom and the translators.
After a rather quick assembly of the nine translators, Les traducteurs settles on a framing device where Eric (Lambert Wilson) is supposedly speaking with the perpetrator during a prison visit, desperate to understand how the man “did it.” This begins a series of twists and turns that are not only frequent, but also well telegraphed in advance and conclude in pretty much the same place. Part of the issue is the knowledge balance between audience and characters, as the central figures in the story always know more than the viewer, with the closest approximation on screen being the arrogant and rather clueless Eric. This asymmetry needn’t be an issue if it was used to construct stories that make sense when their full scope is revealed or if they confirm suspicions — both are routes to a form of catharsis, placing the final piece in a puzzle. Les traducteurs, however, seems to take the same course as Now You See Me where a metaphorical table has been flipped multiple times, scattering the puzzle pieces into a mess in the name of surprise.
Roinsard is so preoccupied with setting up the next twist that Les traducteurs does little to establish why viewers should care. Some of the more interesting characters — such as Sidse Babett Knudsen’s Danish mother, Helene Tuxen — have fascinating stories, which the screenplay engages with just the wrong amount: too much to be merely brief colour, too little to achieve anything. As the film develops, it’s clear that much of the focus will be given over to Russian Katerina (Olga Kurylenko) and Brit Alex Goodman (Alex Lawther). Their interactions are intriguing and set up multiple possibilities that are largely ignored.
Les traducteurs isn’t a character study, though, and there are moments where the execution achieves the fun conspiracy thriller vibe it’s aiming for. As a subset of the group conspires amongst themselves in a tense stand-off, there is a scramble to find language overlaps they understand, but which their counter-conspirators do not. The camerawork and editing operate in tandem to deliver a sequence that is both dramatic and comedic. It is a perfect example of what the film seemingly hopes to achieve, prioritizing the character dynamics over twist moments.
Roinsard’s film has a bewildering intersection in its Venn diagram of influences. The clearest touchstone is that of the “whodunit” murder mystery, albeit the victim here is literary confidentiality. However, the film also introduces elements of the heist team-up a la Ocean’s 11, as the translators grow as a team, bound by circumstances. There are also revelations later delivered in the same montage manner, like a magician’s synopsis of his trick’s mechanics. Even within segments like that, Roinsard somehow manages to squeeze in a Rashomon-like set of multiple viewpoints. A bizarre parallel with Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction can be seen, as there’s a strong undercurrent criticising the state of the publishing world.
Les traducteurs has frequent moments of enjoyment, and the performances are fully amped up, with Wilson being an arrogant delight. However, it’s the determination to keep the audience guessing that’s so frustrating, leaving the point of the film twisting in the wind.
Jim Ross (@JimGR) is a film critic and film journalist based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He is the Managing Editor and co-founder of TAKE ONE Magazine, which began as the official review publication of the Cambridge Film Festival and now covers film festivals and independent film worldwide. Jim hosted a fortnightly film radio show on Cambridge 105FM from 2011-2013 and joined the crew of Cinetopia, on Edinburgh community radio EH-FM, in 2019.