Berlinale 2013 Review: The Fascinating Mysteries Of I'M NOT DEAD

Brian Clark, European Editor
The opening credits to I'm Not Dead play over an intense string number that immediately calls to mind Hitchcock thrillers of yesteryear. While in many ways Mehdi Ben Attia's film is far more intimate and ambiguous (at least on the surface) than, say, Vertigo, the music choice is still fitting. Indeed, Attia has crafted an tense, thought-provoking examination of one of the suspense master's favorite themes: mistaken identity.

Or in this case, a literally switched identity, which of course leads to mistakes. What differentiates Attia's version of this story from many others with similar content is the skillful way he develops both the characters and the situation and gently eases the audience into a "what-if" scenario that, when it reaches full speed, is absorbing and suspenseful for completely different reasons than we would expect.

The central character in the film is Yacine, an Algerian student in Paris who shares a modest apartment with his brother and works his way through school as a courier. The school in question though, is a very prestigious one, normally populated by privileged white kids, which makes Yacine a bit of an outsider as he skips class to make deliveries.

One day, he makes a delivery to the apartment of one of his professors, Richard Artaud. Artaud is a well-known, published academic figure and it's immediately clear that Yacine admires him immensely. What ensues is an uneasy interaction between Artaud, Artaud's lovely wife Eléonore and Yacine, which, while genial on the surface, sets up an unspoken triangle of intrigue, admiration and suspicion between the three.

The relationship develops quickly over the next few days as Yacine sees more of Artaud and Eléonore, with so many nuances and potential implications emerging in their dynamic that it would take hundreds more words to express them all. But, as a testament to the skill of the actors and Attia's talent, they're all developed with finesse and clarity in about 15 minutes of screen time.

Then, two nights later, Yacine wakes up in a panic. He dashes over to Artaud's house, only to find that he's dead. And here's where things get wild. As he sits with Eléonore and Artaud's father, all three in a state of shock, he suddenly looks up and says, "I'm not dead."

Indeed, it seems that somehow, Artaud's mind has been transferred into Yacine's body. Yacine knows things about Artaud's past that he shouldn't know ... unless suspicions that Artaud expressed earlier in the film -- that Yacine was following him -- are correct. Moreover,  Yacine knows nothing about his own life.

Normally at this point, a film, as well as its audience, would become concerned with solving the big mystery of how this spirit transfer happened, where Yacine's spirit went, and so on. Actually, though, Attia has developed the characters and their lives so well during the first half that the far more interesting mystery, and the one which the film focuses on, is: What would a wealthy, old, renowned white man do in the body of a poor Algerian student?

On the surface, the conceit sounds strictly political, and while Attia acknowledges this as far as he has to in the film, politics aren't the first thing on his mind. Instead, he examines how interactions and emotions change, both for the person stuck in this new body, as well as those of his loved ones. Also, will Artaud try to recapture his own identity? Or fully assume that of the person whose body he's trapped in?

The results are suspenseful, occasionally hilarious, and thought-provoking on a number of levels. Attia leaves a number of loose ends hanging in terms of the plot, which will likely bug some, but really, by the end of the film, the questions that need to be answered have been. The unanswered ones linger in a way that begs reflection, making I'm Not Dead a film well worth thinking about and discussing for a considerable time afterwords.

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