A handsome couple who were meant for each other stubbornly reject every chance for conventional shared happiness in "Love Me if You Dare." Maddeningly contrived -- and perpetually overwrought -- pic is sure to dazzle some with its aggressive lensing but the narrative's perverse premise generates results that are all over the map.

A handsome couple who were meant for each other stubbornly reject every chance for conventional shared happiness in “Love Me if You Dare.” Maddeningly contrived — and perpetually overwrought — pic is sure to dazzle some with its aggressive lensing but the narrative’s perverse premise generates results that are all over the map. Valiant attempt to create a modern fairytale ends up being frustratingly creepy instead of haunting and memorable. Initial returns in Gaul look to be OK on release in mid-September, but pic’s offshore life beyond fests may be sketchy.

Despite attractive leads, heaps of thoughtful production design and gung-ho special effects, this misguided tale never truly convinces. Pic follows childhood sweethearts who deliberately turn their adult lives into an emotional minefield, hurting not only themselves but also others in a decades-long game of twisted one-upmanship.

Only child Julien (Thibault Verhaeghe), whose mother is terminally ill, befriends Polish classmate Sophie (Josephine Lebas Joly) in grammar school, where she is mercilessly hazed. To comfort young Sophie after a brutal attack by classmates, Julien gives her a tin box designed like a merry-go-round.

Said box becomes the lifelong symbol of their seemingly pre-ordained obsession for each other, expressed in increasingly bold dares. Every time the box is deposited with an accompanying challenge, both rise to the occasion, however embarrassing or dangerous the dare. The intensity of these youthful pranks conditions them to prefer heart-pounding peril to the sensual rush of more conventional courtship.

Twenty minutes into pic, Sophie sleeps over after the funeral of Julien’s mother and the two playmates awaken as adults (Marion Cotillard, Guillaume Canet). However, where the narrative should now pick up steam, it starts to stall — not because all concerned aren’t trying but because the dares feel artificial when they should be adding spice to both the protags’ relationship and the script.

Julien dares Sophie to take an important oral exam wearing her bra and panties on the outside of her clothes. She complies, and dares him to have sex with another student and bring back the conquest’s earrings as proof.

Julien and Sophie proceed to make each other miserable for the next 10 years (and beyond) by swearing not to see other and embarking on interim marriages.

Some auds may find pic wildly romantic, but the venture suffers from a fundamental miscalculation: Lovers who can’t be together (“Doctor Zhivago,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Brief Encounter,” “Titanic”) are romantic. Would-be lovers who can be together yet deliberately thwart their own romance every step of the way generate zero sympathy.

Talented frosh helmer Yann Samuell wants to have it both ways — both embracing and rejecting established movie conventions. Script tries to milk the “true lovers are special” angle for all it’s worth, but Sophie and Julien come off as cruel, obnoxious, selfish jerks. It’s next to impossible to care whether the two are ever happy.

Razzle-dazzle lensing and ambitious production design create a distinctive look that owes as much to several Belgian pics of the 1990s as it does to the peppy colors on display in any well-stocked candy store.

Narrative devices, including voiceovers from Julien and four onscreen chapter headings, make the carefully designed proceedings seem more coherent than they are. Leads are also very fine, with Cotillard proving yet again that she’s got the chops to match her great looks; but neither thesp can prevent irritation eventually settling in among viewers.

Several different versions of the Edith Piaf standard “La vie en rose” run through pic, in addition to an original score by Philippe Rombi, regular composer of helmer Francois Ozon.

Love Me If You Dare

France-Belgium

Production

A Mars Distribution (in France)/Cineart (in Belgium) release of a Nord-Ouest presentation of a Nord-Ouest Prod., StudioCanal, Artemis Prod., France 2 Cinema, M6 Films, Caneo Films (France)/Media Services (Belgium) production. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Christophe Rossignon. Co-producers, Patrick Quinet, Stephen Quinet. Executive producer, Eve Machuel. Directed by Yann Samuell. Screenplay, Samuell, Jacky Cuckier.

Crew

Camera (color), Antoine Roch; editor, Andrea Sedlackova; music, Philippe Rombi; art director, Jean-Michel Simonet; costume designer, Julie Mauduech; sound (Dolby), Pierre Mertens, Thomas Gauder; special effects, Mac Guff Ligne; assistant director, Thomas Trefouel; casting, Gigi Akoka. Reviewed at Cercle Foch screening room, Paris, June 28, 2003. (In Telluride and Toronto film festivals.) Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Julien - Guillaume Canet Sophie - Marion Cotillard Julien, Age 8 - Thibault Verhaeghe Sophie, Age 8. - Josephine Lebas Joly Julien's Mother - Emmanuelle Gronvold Julien's Father - Gerard Watkins
With: Elodie Navarre, Gilles Lellouche, Julia Faure, Laetizia Venezia.

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