With films like “Toto the Hero,” “C’est arrive pres de chez nous,” “La promesse” and “Ma vie en rose,” the Directors Fortnight has earned a reputation in recent years for interesting discoveries from Belgium. But the country’s latest yield, “The Red Dwarf,” looks to have far less impact. Freely adapted from a short story by Michel Tournier and stylishly shot in expressionistic black-and-white, this grotesque tale of vice and virtue is studded with charming moments and arresting images, but overall, is a cold, uninvolving and overextended exercise. Commercial prospects appear negligible.
The dwarf of the title is Lucien L’Hotte (Jean-Yves Thual), a hard-working employee in a large legal office whose only friend is young circus trapeze artist Isis (Dyna Gauzy), who sees him as her guardian angel. Unable to hope for a love of his own, he specializes in concocting incriminating letters to bust up other peoples’ marriages. His florid verses catch the attention of the company’s best client, frequently divorced singer Paola Bendoni (Anita Ekberg), and an appointment ensues at her swanky villa.
Larger-than-life Fellini icon Ekberg looks at home in the film’s rarefied world, and her languidly delivered French-Italian dialogue supplies some mild humor. One look at the voluptuous vamp and Lucien’s dormant romantic aspirations are released. He presents himself naked before her and a torrid affair begins. The flames of passion have fanned his confidence, and Lucien’s outlook changes overnight. But the first sign of rejection from his capricious inamorata hits hard. He sneaks into her house and strangles her, framing her doltish husband (Arno Chevrier) for the crime.
With his newfound sense of power finally enabling him to make his presence felt in the full-size world, Lucien quits his job, defecating on the desk of his pompous boss as a farewell gesture. In the tale’s drawn-out concluding chapter, he runs off to join the circus and become a clown, craftily using Isis’ attachment to him to secure his position within the troupe.
Lofty, ploddingly literary and rather affectedly performed, the material may have functioned as a short film, but is not nearly amusing or even interesting enough to go the distance at feature length. Just what writer-director Yvan Le Moine hopes to convey, beyond basic themes of innocence and evil, is unclear. Ultimately, the film is more stylistic essay than anything else, with its visual strengths due mainly to Philippe Graff’s rich production design.