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‘Based on a True Story’ Cannes Review: Roman Polanski Thriller Is Timid and Unsure

Emmanuelle Seigner and Eva Green star in an occasionally erotic film that goes down easy but never really gets anywhere

The most generous thing you can say about “Based On A True Story”, Roman Polanski’s half-baked almost-thriller that screened out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday, is that it goes down easy enough.

Banking on the director’s eyes-closed, hands-behind-his-back skill and a game cast of actresses, the film is an enjoyable if not terribly memorable jaunt. But consider the pedigree of cast and crew and make no mistake about it: That fully damns it with faint praise.

Polanski might well be the greatest living director of thrillers. Actress Emmanuelle Seigner, the star Polanski of successes like “Frantic” and “Bitter Moon,” once again takes center stage. She’s joined by Eva Green, who can marry femme fatale and camp queen like no other contemporary actress. (I mean this as the highest possible compliment.) And the film boasts a script written by Olivier Assayas, whose best work fuses the intellectual and the carnal with edgy aplomb. Every item was in place for this film to sizzle off the screen.

It really does not.

Seigner plays Delphine, a successful author still running victory laps from her last literary sensation while slowly confronting the fact that she has no idea how to start her next one. Onto the scene waltzes Elle (Green), a self-proclaimed super-fan who slowly and methodically burrows her way deeper and deeper into the older author’s life. Elle infiltrates Delphine’s social circle, and then her house, and then she begins cutting Delphine off from her friends and family.

You can sort of tell where the film is going, but “Based On A True Story” never actually gets there. If anything, the film is too timid, too unsure of what kind of story it wants to tell. Apart from a number of narrative dead ends and red herrings, Polanski (and Assayas, I suppose) never crack the dynamic between the actresses.

There are occasional flashes of erotic attraction, but they disappear as quickly and suddenly as they arrive. Is Elle a “Misery”-like super-fan, who thinks her fandom allows her to literally posses her favorite author? Or is she trying to steal some of the more famous woman’s spotlight for herself? The film has it both ways, and then, finally, neither.

“Based On A True Story” ends with what you could call a plot twist, if the film would actually stand and own up to making a firm choice. Instead, the film just … ends, leaving the central relationship frustratingly unresolved.

There’s an elliptical insinuation that casts most of the film in a new light, but to make the most of it, you would have to dive back in and put the pieces together. And for the most part, once this entertaining if wafer-thin film comes to a close, it’s better to just turn a new page.