When I saw that Raphaël Jacoulot’s Avant l’aube (Before Dawn) stars three of the finest actors of their respective generations, Jean-Pierre Bacri, Sylvie Testud and Vincent Rottiers, it felt like an opportunity not to be missed.
Clearly inspired by the movies of Claude Chabrol, where what is not said is often more important than what is said, Avant l’Aube concerns the disappearance of a client from a luxury hotel in the Pyrenees. When the client’s body is discovered in a ravine, it is clear that the owner of the hotel, Jacques (played by Bacri), and his new young employee Frédéric (Rottiers) know or have seen more than they are letting on to the disarmingly chaotic detective (Testud) who is investigating the disappearance. Even more strangely, the hotel owner has begun to give his employee special privileges, lodging him in the hotel and allowing him to share meals with his family, much to the puzzlement of his wife (Ludmila Mikaël) and the hostility of his son (Xavier Robic).
The film works well as a study of how an isolated young man gradually begins to trust his boss and to feel accepted. The complicity between the two men (one unable to articulate his thoughts and the other purposefully concealing his intentions) is fascinating to behold, and the class distinctions between the hotel porter and wealthy hotelier are portrayed with delicacy, while the mountainous setting and winding snow-swept road, which plays a significant role throughout, make for a visually impressive experience. As a thriller or detective story, however, the movie is perhaps less remarkable: there simply does not seem to be enough intrigue or complexity to sustain the momentum. As a result, the director resorts to a rather ponderous soundtrack to ratchet up the tension.
Of the three main actors, Testud has the easiest role as the bumbling detective, but she displays great comic timing. Bacri, who must be one of the subtlest actors around, is simply not given enough opportunities by the director and the screenplay to explore the full range of his craft, but Rottiers’ quietly intense performance confirms him as one of the stars to watch.