The title of Belgian writer-director Claude Schmitz’s new film noir, The Other Laurens (L’Autre Laurens), seems like an obvious homage to The Two Jakes, the somewhat forgotten Jack Nicholson sequel to Roman Polanski’s classic of the genre, Chinatown.
Both the latter movie and such existential 1970s neo-noirs as Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Arthur Penn’s Night Moves loom large over Schmitz’s third feature, which follows a down-and-out private eye investigating the death of his twin brother. Starring the scrappily engaging Olivier Rabourdin (also in Catherine Breillat’s Cannes competition title, Last Summer), The Other Laurens weaves an intriguing little family mystery filled with bits of dark comedy and weirdness — this is a Belgian movie after all — and just enough of a plot to sustain the viewer over a rather stretched two hours.
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Schmitz’s first feature, the tiny 2018 heist flick Carwash, applied a similar mix of crime and comedy, which the director (working with co-writer Kostia Testut) expands here to a more ambitious detective story template. When the film starts, Gabriel Laurens (Rabourdin) is a Brussels-based P.I. who, like Jake Gittes in Chinatown, specializes in adultery cases. He lives alone and looks like he always has, paying visits to his dying mother, who mistakes him for his identical twin, François (Rabourdin again).
When François’ daughter, Jade (Louise Leroy), shows up on Gabriel’s doorstop to say her father was killed in a car crash, the detective inevitably gets caught up in an affair he wants nothing to do with. Long estranged from his twin, a rich real estate mogul who lived in a ginormous chateau outside of the French city of Perpignan, near the Spanish border, the detective arrives to give his niece a quick hand before getting out of town.
Of course things don’t go as planned, as Gabriel gets gradually sucked into the bling-bling and extremely shady lifestyle of his dead brother, crossing paths with a greedy American wife (Kate Moran) who wants to take the money and run, a Harley Davidson gang lead by the volatile Valéry (Marc Babré), and a drug deal gone sour over in Spain.
The story takes perhaps too much time to unravel, but it’s filled with amusing comic asides, many of them coming from a pair of bumbling police investigators (Rodolphe Burger, Francis Soetens) who are supposed to be on the case as well. Gabriel tries to avoid them while protecting Jade at the same time, though more often than not it seems like she’s protecting him. They form an unlikely duo that leads the detective closer to a brother he abruptly cut out of his life, with a late explanation adding more weight to both characters and their longstanding feud.
By far the best parts of The Other Laurens deal with the mirroring between the two, with Gabriel slowly transforming over the course of the movie into the twin he loved to hate, wearing the dead man’s clothes, driving his primo sports car and, at some point, flat-out assuming his identity. It’s the perfect concept for a film noir — a genre that’s always favored double-crossings or double indemnities, and Schmitz keeps repeating the doubling motif until we no longer know which of the brothers is which.
The film’s very Belgian deadpan drollness is an acquired taste, and again, it probably could have been a bit shorter. But we eventually grow attached to Gabriel’s zigzagging quest for the truth, even if it’s no longer clear whether that truth relates to his brother or himself. At various times in The Other Laurens, people mistake him for François or else think they’ve seen a ghost, and it leaves us wondering if we’ve been watching a movie about the walking dead or a dead man walking, and whether that’s ultimately the same thing.
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