Perhaps one of the best modern adaptations of an Agatha Christie story is the 2007 French film, L’Heure Zero (Zero Hour), adapted from the novel, Towards Zero.
Here, Superintendent Battle become Det. Bataille and he is present in the prologue when a group of lawyers listen to M. Trévoz, a former solictor, explain his theory of how the murder is not the beginning of the story. “I love detective stories but they begin in the wrong place. With the murder. The murder comes at the end.” Before the opening credits, it should be clear to viewers that M. Trévoz is heading towards his own zero hour.
Before the main story commences, we see a man, M. Ange Werther, saved from an attempted suicide. He will return to the coast where he tried to take his own life and save the life of another.
The players, suspects to be, are introduced. They will all gather at Pointe-aux-Mouettes, the stately home of Camilla Trésillian. Mme. Trésillian is the elderly aunt of golden boy—and avid tennis player—Guillaume Neuville. Guillaume’s wife, Caroline, is furious that his first wife, Aude, will be in attendance. But then there’s Fred Latimer, a gigolo of sorts, who loves Caroline and hates Guillaume for stealing her away.
Companion to Mme. Trésillian, Marie-Adeline calls Thomas Rondeau, who’s spent years in Vietnam, to come because she fears there is trouble ahead at the great expanse of a house overlooking the sea. Rondeau, who has always loved Aude, witnesses tensions between the second Mme. Neuville and the first wife. At one point, Rondeau observes that the wives are akin to “Rose Red and Rose White. Like in the fairy tales.”
Enter M. Trévoz once again. He is an old friend of Mme. Trésillian who is invited to dinner. “He’s fragile as glass. Musn’t exert himself at all,” says Marie-Adeline. “Nothing but antiques here,” replies Caroline. At dinner, M. Trévoz pointedly recounts a tale of murder. He recalls a minor who killed his playmate with a bow and arrow, but circumstantial evidence suggest the “accident” was premeditated. Is the child, now grown, present at dinner?
After a little dancing, Rondeau and Latimer drive M. Trévoz to the Hôtel des Mâts Bleus, where the old solictor is staying. They see that the lift is out of order, so the old man will have to climbthe stairs to his room. When we next hear of M. Trévoz, he has died of a heart attack. Someone had hidden his medication—seen by all at dinner.
There are questions about the man’s death, but nothing truly seems amiss. That is until there is another murder. The following night, Mme. Trésillian is murdered in her bed. Clues suggest she was killed by a golf club wielded by a left-handed person. Clues that all point to Guillaume. Det. Bataille, assisting his nephew, Inspector Leca, thinks it’s all too easy. Too apparent. Who would hate Guillaume enough to implicate him?
It all leads to a climatic scene on a boat as the solution is revealed.
Towards Zero is Christie at her most ingenious. The story unfolds at a slow, steady pace. A band playing on a revolving carousel serves as a motif for the relentess march of time toward zero hour. Surprisingly, though the film is updated for modern times—characters are seen using cell phones and a gravestone date indicates it’s at least post-2005—it works seemlessly. The film maintains Christie’s style and rather faithful preserves much of the story.
This is a film to savor on a quiet, rainy evening. Like a fine wine, it should not be rushed.
L’Heure Zero stars Danielle Darrieux, who was also in 8 Women (Huit Femmes); Chiara Mastroianni, Melvil Poupard, Laura Smet, and François Morel as Bataille. All give excellent performances, and only Smet’s Caroline strays from the character’s original portrayal.
Towards Zero was originally published in 1944. It has been previously adapted as a stage play, and in 2006, was filmed for television with Miss Marple inserted into the story. Both book and film are unusual in the mystery genre for the very late occurrence of the murder. This is not to everyone’s taste, but students of the genre should appreciate its finesse.
View trailer here.