Even the more inventive thrillers will fall back on convention, as this new French entry does in its opening minutes. Here we find an idyllic outdoor dinner, in which the camera circles guests to create a tone so dreamlike that, alas, we're ready for a doze. At times like these, no one seems to have issues -- it's as if weekends never end and retirement comes by 35. The tranquility here feels exploitative, like a premise hardly worth filming, until it's shattered by storytellers with better plans ahead.
Not that the general premise breaks new grounds. Cliches be damned, Alexandre's (François Cluzet) love for Margot (Marie-Josée Croze) really does seem endless. Having been inseparable since adolescence, the couple radiates the world around them, whether lulling with friends or taking a late-night skinny dip. Cue the upheaval when Margot leaves the water and screams out from beyond sight, right before Alexandre's clubbed in the face and we follow him to a blackout. The film takes us ahead eight years, with Alexandre lost as his soul mate is presumably dead. Funeral scenes crosscut with flashbacks of their wedding make a stale taste return for the viewer. Yet tension soon rises to make this as smart and crisp as the best of the recent paranoid thrillers -- i.e., Michael Clayton and In the Valley of Elah.
Attentive as a pediatrician but emotionally numb, Alexandre revives after receiving some mysterious emails. Like answers to his prayers, they lead him to think that Margot is alive, and that deception was was used to pin a serial killer for her death. From here, the framework of the case loosens until Alexandre cannot trust anyone, as he's caught in a conspiracy and chased as if by a Hitchcock McGuffin. Here writer/director Guillaume Canet (whose script is based on the Harlan Coben thriller) finds a consistency on tone and method to deliver it. As brisk as things become, clarity wins out, as the hand-held camerawork Bourne for many a chase sequence has no place here. For full-blooded anxiety, thugs surface out of nowhere, one of them a birdlike woman who throws chops and masters pressure points of sheer agony. But devotion leaves Alexandre dauntless, even if saved by a thug whom Alexandre bailed out of a possible child abuse accusation.
Far from a clever payoff, the final revelation is calculated and serves the story arch more than its own purpose. Again we're reminded of Hitchcock's MacGuffins, those plot-igniting devices that would lie limp when revealed (like those inane plutonium bottles in Notorious). To realize humanity behind the suspense, the makers of thrillers need to master the finest forms of trickery. Whenever a new development arises, and viewers await further tension, the film cannot forget its characters' fears and desires, or else we glide into superficial melodrama. Canet sees Tell No One as Alexandre's mission, through which he progresses to reclaim his life purpose. Even if he a great enlightment is never to be his, the triumph of his will makes his quest worthwhile.