I need to get this out of my system first: the English-language title of Nicolas Saada's feature directorial debut, Spy(ies), is terribly unlovely and cumbersome, especially compared to the elegance of its native French form: Espion(s). I'm going to use the French title hereafter, and I hope that's not going to be confusing for anybody.

Either way, the title promises that this is going to be a movie about covert intelligence, and that is indeed what we get, though with the expected French twist - that being, that any time a French filmmaker gets his paws on a thriller of any genre, he's going to make damn sure that it turns out to actually be about sex and lust all along (or, barring that, actual "love", but sex in French cinema is invariably more pleasing than love in French cinema). So in Espion(s), what starts out as the story of an airport baggage handler getting shanghaied into an international terrorism plot, Hitchcock style, ends up being about the baggage handler screwing a terror suspect's wife.

The fuller version: Vincent (Guillaume Canet) and his buddy (Fred Epaud) are engaging in what appears to be their regular pastime of breaking into luggage that comes their way, and stealing a couple of small, expensive things. On this particular day, the buddy gets it into his head to break one of the only rules that actually govern their thievery: let the diplomatic bags alone. Too much risk. Well, this seems to have been an especially bad moment to break that rule, since this diplomatic bag contains a perfume bottle full of an extraordinarily explosive liquid, and the thief burns to a crisp right in front of Vincent's eyes. This in turn gets him in trouble with the law, and the only way out of a stiff jail sentence comes from a DST (I think; there are a lot of French intelligence agencies) agent calling himself Simon (Hippolyte Girardot). See, while running in terror from his flaming friend, Vincent spotted a pair of men taking bags off a plane in from Syria, outside of security channels. He tells Simon, and the agent offers to make Vincent's legal problems go away, if he'll just do a quick bit of espionage first.

So off goes Vincent to London, under the care of MI5 handler Palmer (Stephen Rea), and told that his job is to figure out if those two men have anything to do with Peter Burton (Vincent Regan), a businessman who spends a lot of time in Syria. Palmer even has a plan all laid out to get Vincent in Burton's household: you see, Burton has a French wife named Claire (Géraldine Pailhas), so if Vincent can just use some of that good old French charm to seduce his way into her good graces, she's bound to do the rest, right? Right, actually. Posing as a doctor with an international charity organisation, Vincent has managed in hardly any time to become a fixture at the Burtons' and to learn that one of the two men he saw at the airport is another such fixture: a international vivant named Malik (Alexander Siddig), who appears to have his fingers in pies pretty much everywhere that a Person of Interest to the Government would be expected to have pies.

There's nothing about Espion(s) that could accurately be called "new" to the largely moribund spy film genre (it particularly feels like Saada was besotted with the 1970s "ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances can't stop being ordinary" branch of the form), though I do appreciate that Saada went for the less-hidebound approach of keeping the narrative firmly grounded in the banal and the everyday. Vincent's espionage consists almost entirely of having conversations that keep wandering around the point without ever getting to it. The one time he actually engages in anything like movie spy action, it's a lengthy foot-chase across the city that ends up being worse than a waste of time. The film's single greatest moment of tension occurs as Vincent tries desperately to stall for time while waiting to get a text message response from MI5. Though I'd hardly say that Espion(s) nails the gritty realism of real-life spying - what the hell do I know about real-life spying? - at least it is based in realism and not a Bondian fantasy.

But the point of the film is not its spying, realistic or not. The point is the weird relationship between Vincent and Claire, who to all appearances is perfectly happy in her marriage, but is obviously attracted to Vincent from just about the first time he says a word to her. For his part, if it's not quite true that he falls in love with her, he starts to grow a certain kind of affection and respect for her that quickly runs into conflict with his government-mandated need to mercilessly use her for his own ends. This is at once the triumph of Espion(s) and the source of its chief flaw: for while the idea that a spy would almost rather give up the game than hurt a woman he cares for is itself a cliché, Guillaume Canet is quite a gifted actor (ever since I saw Love Me if You Dare some five years ago, I've been waiting for him to make some kind of breakthrough to American audiences), and he plays this stock character with a degree of genuine pathos rare to the genre. His confusion and pain are not just believable, they're genuinely moving. On the other hand, though Géraldine Pailhas gives a fine performance in her own right, the script leaves Claire far too much of a blank spot for even a good actor to do much of anything with the character. We know virtually nothing of her motivations and only the most cursory things about her feelings, and so the central relationship on which the film itself hangs is represented in a somewhat unsatisfying, shallow way.

Still, some of us just happen to have a weak spot even for adequate spy movies, and I got quite a kick out of Espion(s). It's smarter than it needs to be in a lot of ways, and studded with some very nice performances by under-appreciated workhorses like Rea and Siddig. A single, if huge, character misfire isn't enough to keep it from being a fun night out.