Anyone who's seen "The Blair Witch Project" knows that no good can come of young people venturing into the woods, particularly if, as in "Criminal Lovers," they're there to bury the body of a murdered classmate. Crafty scripter-helmer Francois Ozon, who's never met a sexual subtext he didn't like, sets out to graft fairy-tale conventions onto the sordid, fundamentally pointless crimes of passion that sell newspapers.

Anyone who’s seen “The Blair Witch Project” knows that no good can come of young people venturing into the woods, particularly if, as in “Criminal Lovers,” they’re there to bury the body of a murdered classmate. Crafty scripter-helmer Francois Ozon (“Sitcom”), who’s never met a sexual subtext he didn’t like, sets out to graft fairy-tale conventions onto the sordid, fundamentally pointless crimes of passion that sell newspapers. Despite his flair for perverse and unsettling juxtapositions, Ozon can’t quite make a go of this ambitious conceit. A few surges of sardonic humor and a sure stylistic hand show a born filmmaker at work, but pic never completely takes the next step beyond being a catalog of things that go bump in the psyche. Beyond festivals, where Ozon and his cast already have a cachet, offshore chances look mixed.

Although never boring or predictable, proceedings feel like pages from Grimm’s Fairy Tales shuffled together with those from Freud. The result is too unwieldy to resolve itself as either a good bedtime story or a satisfying bout of dream analysis.

When demonic tease Alice (Natacha Regnier, from “The Dreamlife of Angels”) enlists cute but sexually challenged b.f. Luc (Jeremie Renier, from “La promesse”) to “help me kill somebody,” her motivations seem legitimate (she claims to have been raped), even if murder is an extreme response. Flashbacks gradually suggest that Alice may just be a “bad seed” — a little too taken with gratuitous crime as extolled in the poems of Rimbaud.

After Alice and Luc — in a graphically bloody sequence — stab her classmate (Salim Kechiouche) in the shower, the two bury the body in the forest. But they’re not out of the woods yet. A big bad wolf, in the form of a nameless rabbit trapper (Miki Manojlovic), catches the trespassing couple in his creepy cabin and locks them in his cellar. Is this ogre-like individual a degenerate pervert, or just a lonely old man without enough variety in his diet?

All three leads do a good job with the material, making the methodical strangeness of Ozon’s universe plausible, though the two male thesps overshadow Regnier.

Bleeding chunks from the classical repertoire (Wagner, Vivaldi) burst forth at often unexpected moments as the tale builds to its tongue-in-cheek, yet emotionally troubling, climax.

Lensing in the forest section manages to be both lush and unsettling.

Criminal Lovers

French-Japanese

Production

A Mars Films release (in France) of a Fidelite Prods. (France)/Eurospace (Japan) production, with participation of Arte and Canal Plus. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Olivier Delbosc, Marc Missonnier. Directed, written by Francois Ozon.

Crew

Camera (color), Pierre Stoeber; editor, Dominique Petrot; music, Philippe Rombi, plus classical excerpts; art director, Arnaud de Moleron; costume designer, Pascaline Chavanne; sound (Dolby), Francois Guillaume, Benoit Hillebrant; assistant director, Hubert Barbin; casting, Stephane Foenkinos. Reviewed at Elysees Biarritz screening room, Paris, July 6, 1999. (In Montreal Film Festival --- Cinema of Tomorrow section --- and Venice Film Festival --- Dreams & Visions section.) Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Alice - Natacha Regnier
Luc - Jeremie Renier
Man in the Woods - Miki Manojlovic
Said - Salim Kechiouche
Karim - Yasmine Belmadi
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