Watch The Trailer
Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Mathieu Roussel’s only crime is naivete. As the recently appointed director of the Alliance Francaise in the Siberian city of Irkoutsk, he rashly programs a homoerotic dance performance as an example of contemporary French culture. Predictably enough, the local powerbrokers see it as yet more proof of his country’s depravity. Then bad luck enters the picture with the collapse of a Franco-Russian military deal and the FSB, the successor to Russia’s KGB, responds by anointing him a scapegoat. He’s hit with a trumped-up charge of child molestation and frogmarched off to a Siberian prison where his new cellmates beat him half to death.
Mathieu finds his first and staunchest ally in Svetlana, a Russian co-worker with a rebellious disposition and the courage to back it up to the point where she’s willing to risk her own life to help him. Married to a former soldier crippled by injuries sustained in the war against Chechnya, she’s in a particularly precarious position since her father-in-law is the local FSB chief. Mathieu’s lawyer, Borodin, too, retains some sympathy for him, although it’s well hidden below the layers of black comic cynicism which have accumulated during his long years of working within the Russian legal system. After getting his client released from prison to await trial under house arrest with an electronic bracelet strapped to his ankle, he gives him the bad news. He has no hope of an acquittal. To avoid 15 years of forced labour, he must go on the run.
The rest is a survival tale, told at breakneck speed with a twist at every turn. The suspense is relentless, relieved only by a few brief flashbacks sketching the outlines of Mathieu’s rocky marriage and the depths of his devotion to his young daughter, Rose. It’s also realistic. Roussel looks authentically lonely and terrified for most of the time. He displays a canny ability to navigate PayPal and the Russian equivalent of Airbnb, but that’s about it. Nonetheless, the climax, which takes place in a Siberian Forest, is so harrowing that you have to remind yourself to breathe. An accomplished action director, Salle has a finely tuned feel for pace and timing and the current political scene adds an extra frisson. It’s a wild ride.