Stunning Performances Make For An Uncommonly Clever Film.
A delightful work, this film is based upon the award-winning first novel by French writer Hubert Monteilhet, LES MANTES RELIGIEUSES, a cunningly vivid epistolary crime novel transposed effectively to cinema by the late Philip Mackie, noted for his adaptations of classical literature, such as with short tales of Saki. Shown upon occasion on public television in a serialised but complete version, MANTIS has, however, been rather harshly chopped for home video distribution, having over 30 minutes cut away, primarily from the significant introductory portion of the scenario, and crucial voice-over narration is also excised. Monteilhet's original depicts a crime of passion engaging Paul Canova (Pinkas Braun), professor in the Ancient History Department, University of Rouen, along with his wife Vera (Carmen du Sautoy), his secretary/lover Beatrice (Cherie Lunghi), and his research assistant Christian (Jonathan Pryce). It would be read to one's advantage before one watches the film, and is widely available in English translation. The original title indicates plural mantises, altered to singular for the English made film, and since a strong element of uncertainty is attendant upon which of the female characters is the eponym, the amendment in number produces ongoing subtextual and semantic contradiction. As the entire novel is comprised of letters, memoranda, and such, it is plain that changes are necessary to bring the book to the screen, but Mackie retains its quintessence, providing engrossing scenes and smart dialogue, in addition to a goodly measure of suspense, for an audience. Canova's wife and son die after short illnesses, and when their nurse,Vera, promptly is wed to the widowed and grieving professor, after which he makes his new wife sole beneficiary of his inherited fortune totalling six million Swiss francs, Canova's Zurich based insurance company quite understandably becomes suspicious, although its assigned investigator fails to discover a sign of conspiracy in the two deaths. Nonetheless, a viewer will cradle suspicions due to unpredictable behaviour by the featured characters, notably after Christian, who has shown negligible interest in women, abruptly marries Paul's newly hired secretary (and inamorata) who is pregnant from an earlier relationship, and a typically Gallic framework is established, to include deception, adultery, blackmail and homicide. We are kept asea by an inventive production marked by such ingenious gambits as having obviously meaningful conversations intentionally being held too far off to be heard, and a good deal of intensity is developed through a storyline in which there is more than a trace of wit to leaven the action. Jack Gold directs with well-styled purpose and fine attention to detail, pacing the work to benefit a talented cast, and the somewhat hurried ending does not seriously detract from the preceding skilled playing of the principals. There are numerous accomplished acting turns, but the film belongs to the two female leads, with the laurels garnered, in spite of Lunghi's well-shaded effort, to du Sautoy, the Royal Shakespeare Company actress who, as is her wont, creates a character that remains in the mind of a viewer. The film is actually shot in its setting of Rouen, Normandie, and its environs, and benefits from the designs of Robert Cartwright, adroit editing from Keith Palmer, along with apt minimalist scoring by composer Carl Davis, a specialist with latter-day scores for restored silent films. Especially in its uncut edition, MANTIS becomes more of a character study than a crime based thriller, consistently offering creative and well-executed sequences by cast and crew.
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