There’s a moment in Möbius where I expected a turn toward high-stakes adventure and evasion. As in any story of spies and espionage, this is where a fine plan goes horribly, uncontrollably wrong. People who shouldn’t get involved get involved, covers verge on getting blown, entire intelligence operations are on the brink of failure — evasive maneuvers must be taken.
This expectation was kicked off by a close-quarters fight in an elevator, with Jean Dujardin (The Artist) squaring off against a tough-guy Russian who works for a greedy businessman played by Tim Roth. Dujardin throws stiff elbows and beats his face in with the meatiest part of his fist. It’s part James Bond, part Cold War thriller I’d catch on basic cable in the mid-90s. This is the point of no return, a moment when there is no way out.
But what happens in the aftermath lacks consequence, which is just one of the disappointing things about Möbius.
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Director: Éric Rochant
Release Date: TBD
Then again, these expectations could just be me, which is why I’ll briefly put myself in the shoes of Roth’s character in the scene a little bit after the elevator fight. If something bad happened to a person I trusted with my safety, I might show a lot of concern. Since he wasn’t the only henchman in my employ, I’d probably ask around to find out where he was. All signs would point to the apartment of Alice (Cecile De France), the woman I’ve recently hired to earn me a lot of easy money through creative financial malfeasance; she’s also someone I’m desperately trying to sleep with.
And say, didn’t my henchman think something was fishy about her, like she may be followed by an intelligence agent? This would then lead me to do some fishing and find out that Alice has some suspect allegiances of her own because of how close she is to me. On top of that, I’d also learn that her new lover (Dujardin) is really working with Russian intelligence to bring me down. (All of the above is touched on in the first quarter of the movie, so nothing of consequence has been spoiled.)
Instead, Roth’s character carries on with his life like normal, without added suspicion or security. It’s as if someone placed a Papa John’s flyer at the gate of his mansion rather than a corpse.
These kinds of lapses in character logic can mar an otherwise promising movie, especially when it involves the ostensible antagonist of the film; and up to this point, Möbius is pretty promising given its individual components. It’s a spy movie with double-crosses and triple-crosses adapted to its time, with the concern now on international finance rather than nuclear codes. The old combatants and allegiances of the Cold War are still here in the film, though it’s the FSB instead of the KGB taking on the CIA; the resentments might be larger now since the late 80s.
There’s some sexiness to the story too. The seduction of De France is handled with a kind of charming suaveness, and she and Dujardin eventually engage in a few steamy bouts of near-motionless coitus. De France fakes orgasms like she’s about to sneeze while stifling a deep belly laugh in a meat locker. Dujardin looks on admiringly, though perhaps more in awe than in love. Theirs is a romance of French whispers and shuddered gasps, so maybe it makes sense that this relationship winds up going into Douglas Sirk territory.
Dujardin’s an interesting figure to lead his group of intelligence agents. He’s a mix of danger and old-Hollywood charisma by way of Europe, but he’s also severely incompetent. His personal involvement with Alice jeopardizes the whole intelligence gathering job. He knows this full well, but he never seems to have a Plan B for anything that happens. That might be why I expected the film to suddenly become an escape picture: after the elevator fight, everything about the operation seems botched. Why not get reckless with everything else? But again, for some reason Roth’s character seems disinterested.
In a lot of ways, this points to one of the biggest weaknesses of Möbius. There’s no sense of an active antagonist who’s goading our heroes into desperation or danger. It wouldn’t even need to be Roth’s character giving chase or applying pressure. There’s a sense of potential mutiny within the small group of Russian spies trailing Alice, particularly Émilie Dequenne’s character. She seems almost resentful to be a mere observer rather than the leader of a high-stakes intelligence mission. Dequenne was incredible in Our Children, but she’s squandered here and left mostly on the sidelines throughout.
The pressure could have also come from the FSB and the CIA, both of which have interests in a lot of the parties involved. We occasionally get glimpses of the CIA operation since they’re keeping tabs on Alice for her role in the global financial crisis. Yet even these large groups seem mostly hands off, with occasional signs of stern disapproval from organization figureheads. They’re more interested in clandestine moves punctuated by the occasional gotcha moment.
Rather than the escapes and evasions I was expecting, the biggest moment of tension in the film after the elevator fight involves a phone call. It may sound underwhelming, but it’s pretty well done. Möbius could have become a collection of small intrigues like this, one clever dodge after the other, each one becoming more complex, the next a potentially fatal misstep. But no, it’s a thriller that’s low on thrills.
[For tickets and more info on Möbius, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.]