Set in coastal Marseilles, MR 73 concerns two serial killers - one past, one present - and their influence on burnt-out, alcoholic cop Louis Schneider (Daniel Auteuil). Barely coping with the pressures of the job and a wife in hospital hooked up to a respirator, a drunken Louis draws his gun amidst a crowded bus and is humiliatingly brought down by a police SWAT team. His captain, and onetime lover, Marie Angéli (Catherine Marchal) ensures the incident is hushed up, but event though Louis is taken off the case of a vicious rapist/serial killer he continues to investigate in secret. Meanwhile, after twenty-five years in prison, sixty-eight year old rapist, torturer and serial killer Charles Subra (Philippe Nahon) is about to be released on parole, a fact that sickens Justine (Olivia Bonamy), who together with her younger sister, narrowly survived his rape and murder of their family. Justine reaches out to Louis for help and unwittingly paves the way for the tortured cop to make peace with his troubled past, even as police corruption and random violence seek to derail his efforts.
As in his earlier 36 Quai Des Orfevres (2006), cop-turned-filmmaker Olivier Marchal envisions the murky world of cops and criminals as nothing less than the ninth circle of hell. Travelling from the grisly aftermath of serial killings (with the corpse of a violently sodomised sixty-five year old woman shown in distressing detail) to emotionally-draining encounters with bereaved parents, time and again, it is little wonder Louis takes to the bottle. Justine is similarly shell-shocked. Whereas her sister has started a family, she is merely going through the motions, unable to relinquish the past. While the older cops are as world-weary as Louis, though coping slightly better, Marchal depicts his younger colleagues as little better than a stable of junkyard dogs. Cynical brutes, casually corrupt, they cover up more crimes than they solve, while Louis is pulled into a pissing contest with cocky young turk Kovalski (Francis Reynaud), who worse yet, arrogantly flaunts his relationship with Captain Angéli.
Methodically paced, Denis Rouden’s washed out, blue-grey cinematography creates a claustrophobic world slowly constricting its tortured hero, from which death may be the only release. Marchal takes his time drawing three strands together while the plot aspect concerning the younger serial killer comes across an elaborate detour before the story picks up several months later as a newly-sober Louis leaves prison and joins a pregnant Justine. There is one dumb element in having Justine stupidly send Subra a photograph of herself, but Marchal is largely good at neat little details, including Louis’ cute quirk of adopting pets that murder victims leave behind, which develops into a major clue.
The film is driven by top-notch performances from Nahon - who, since I Stand Alone (Seul Contre Tous) has been France’s premier actor of unsettling psychopaths - and Bonamy, but especially Daniel Auteuil whose character comes across as a truly haggard, shell of a man. With so much bleakness and despair, Marchal searches desperately for hope and finds a trace of it when a new life enters the world (rather graphically, it must be said!) just as one world-weary soul leaves it behind.