Years after the word “kompromat” had its moment in the popular imagination during a certain Special Counsel investigation, Jérôme Salle’s thriller of the same name arrives as a nerve-racking reminder of just how life-ruining being targeted by the Russian government might actually be. Salle, who co-wrote the film with Caryl Férey, opens the proceedings with a helpful definition for the uninitiated — “documents used to destroy someone’s reputation” — as well as important context: “Kompromat” is based on a true story, though the principals are unnamed. The result is cold but competent, which, whether intentional or not, is ultimately apropos of the subject matter.
Mathieu (Gilles Lellouche), a French arts ambassador working in Siberia, inadvertently runs afoul of his host country’s government and is raided by the FSB (the modern-day KGB) as a result. His actual “crime” would appear to be dancing with the wrong woman (Joanna Kulig of “Cold War”) after presenting a sophisticated ballet with homoerotic elements that on an aesthetic level may be the film’s highlight — bathed in red light in a newly renovated theater, the two male performers contort their bodies until they’re practically one — but that isn’t what he’s accused of.
After his surprise arrest, the hood is taken off Mathieu’s head and he’s informed that he’s been charged with disseminating child pornography online and molesting his daughter. Despite having just been introduced to the character, the audience has precisely zero reason to believe that he’s done either of these things — or, indeed, that he’s even capable of having done so. That doesn’t matter when the authoritarian powers that be have already crafted the incriminating narrative, of course.
Rare is the prison movie that makes incarceration look anything less than hellacious, and “Kompromat” is no exception. Any human-rights organization would blush at Mathieu’s treatment, as will most viewers — he’s beaten by his fellow prisoners immediately after they learn what he’s been accused of, thrown in isolation and barely fed. The film is at its anxiety-inducing best when we know as little about what’s going on as Mathieu, whose Kafkaesque ordeal is as easy to sympathize with as it is difficult to understand. Salle and Férey’s script wisely leaves open the possibility in these earlier scenes that maybe, just maybe, Mathieu has done something more than put on a ballet, even if there’s no chance that something deserves such an extreme punishment.
After being allowed to return home with an ankle monitor, Mathieu soon realizes his only path to true freedom is escaping the country — an already difficult task complicated by his name, face and supposed crimes being plastered across the news. It’s to the film’s credit that, despite the fact that any viewer could reasonably assume how “Kompromat” will ultimately end, Mathieu’s task never seems the slightest bit feasible — we may think we know where he’ll end up, but we never know how he’ll get there.
Slightly unstacking the odds against him is Svetlana, Mathieu’s one-time dance partner from the first of many flashback sequences, who becomes a co-conspirator in his long trek across Mother Russia for reasons that elude him. Her response is the same every time he asks her why she’s helping him: Why doesn’t matter. That somewhat grim pronouncement could double as the film’s thesis statement, especially as it pertains to why Mathieu found himself in this predicament in the first place. Divining someone’s intentions — whether an oppressive government or a helping hand — can distract from doing what must be done in order to survive. The same might be said of watching a movie like “Kompromat”: Focusing on the moment-to-moment thrills proves more satisfying than wondering what actually sparked this intrigue.