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Genealogies of a Crime

The effervescent wit of prolific director Raoul Ruiz goes flat at times as he plays with double identities, free will and psychoanalysis in "Genealogies of a Crime," a film targeted at viewers who like to carry around loads of cultural baggage when they go to the movies. Less focused than the Chilean-born director's Cannes entry last year, "Three Lives and Only One Death," which it in some ways resembles, current pic mixes the ironic delights Ruiz is known for with tired moments that take it down a notch or two. International art house prospects are brightened by the presence of stars Catherine Deneuve, who commands center stage in a coldly glamorous double role, and Michel Piccoli at his eccentric best as a nutty psychiatrist. Tale begins intriguingly with a Chinese ghost story about a young man predestined to kill a girl who, after he commits the crime, falls in love with the girl's vengeful ghost. This is one way to look at the tale of the orphan Rene (Melvil Poupaud), raised by his psychiatrist aunt Jeanne (Deneuve in a red wig). Thinking she detects homicidal tendencies in the boy, she makes him her patient and curiously waits to see his killer instinct develop.

Jeanne/Solange ... Catherine Deneuve Georges Didier ... Michel Piccoli Rene ... Melvil Poupaud Christian ... Andrzej Seweryn Esther ... Bernadette Lafont Louise ... Monique Melinaud Verret ... Hubert Saint Macary

Ten years later she is murdered, and Rene is arrested. Fellow shrink Georges Didier (Piccoli) claims he was an eyewitness to the crime, which unfolded in the course of a kinky group therapy session right out of the Marquis de Sade.

Against all the evidence, tough lawyer Solange (Deneuve again) is persuaded to take up Rene’s losing legal battle. To defend him, she launches an investigation into Piccoli’s wacky “Franco-Belgian Psychiatric Society.” Meanwhile, her relationship with Rene, who perhaps recalls her own dead son, takes an intimate turn when they start exchanging personalities as a verbal game, each one speaking from the other’s p.o.v. They eventually become degenerate lovers, as Solange sinks into madness.

As usual with Ruiz’s work, a strong story idea gets deliberately tangled up in theory and philosophy, creating layers of complexity designed to baffle viewers and draw them into narrative games. “Genealogies” puts forward the perverse notion that story-telling is itself an illness, because it makes us project ourselves into roles alien to our personalities and, in extreme cases like Jeanne, Rene and Solange, become possessed by them.

Of course, not all auds are interested in playing story-telling games, and the film had some walkouts at its Berlin fest premiere by exasperated viewers tired of trying to untangle the threads. There are sporadic problems with tone that come off as awkward rather than funny, as when Deneuve has to mourn her son’s and mother’s cremations while everyone else is making bad jokes. And Ruiz’s screenplay, written with Pascal Bonitzer, seems a little too derivative of past films to amaze us with its originality.

Still, there is a constant stream of good-natured, high-brow Euro humor to satisfy those who stay on board for the ride. In its best scenes, even camera movements become a game of surprises. Valeria Sarmiento has edited the film down to an unusually fast and merry pace, and Ruiz is always ready to introduce another offbeat character, like the smugly literate “ethnopsychiatrist” Andrzej Seweryn, Piccoli’s Morticia-like assistant Bernadette Lafont and Solange’s talkative mother Monique Melinaud, who dies of excitement on Piccoli’s professional couch.

Stephan Ivanov’s lensing and Jorge Arriagada’s sweeping orchestral comment have a deliberately old-fashioned feel, strengthening the echoes from Ruiz’s masters, most notably here Bunuel and Hitchcock. Luc Chalon and Solange Zeitoun’s sets are one long visual joke, depicting the Psychiatric Society as a classic haunted house full of brothel paintings, where the faces of the cast have been painted in.

Genealogies of a Crime


Production: A Gemini Films production, in association with Madragoa Filmes and Canal Plus France. (International sales: Gemini, Paris.) Produced by Paulo Branco. Directed by Raoul Ruiz. Screenplay, Pascal Bonitzer, Ruiz.

Crew: Camera (color), Stefan Ivanov; editor, Valeria Sarmiento; music, Jorge Arriagada; production design, Luc Chalon, Solange Zeitoun; costumes, Elizabeth Tavernier; sound (Dolby SR), Henri Maikoff. Reviewed at the Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 19, 1997. Running time: 114 MIN.

With: Jeanne/Solange ... Catherine Deneuve Georges Didier ... Michel Piccoli Rene ... Melvil Poupaud Christian ... Andrzej Seweryn Esther ... Bernadette Lafont Louise ... Monique Melinaud Verret ... Hubert Saint Macary

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