“Persecution” offers strong evidence for the prosecution that the French produce too many pics depicting people arguing about their relationships, having sex and sitting in bars. No doubt Patrice Chereau’s latest will find auds domestically and offshore who always like this sort of thing and will be drawn by the name cast (Romain Duris, Charlotte Gainsbourg, both on so-so form) and the helmer’s rep (“Intimacy,” “Queen Margot”). But this sketchily drawn, dramatically thin work is not one of Chereau’s best, and drew a mostly negative response at its Venice press screening.
Although the script is solely credited to Chereau and Anne-Louise Trividic, who collaborated with Chereau on his four previous films, its narrative bears a striking similarity to the plot of both Ian McEwan’s novel “Enduring Love” and the film that was adapted from it in 2004. Both “Enduring Love” and “Persecution” revolve around a man whose relationship with his female partner is under strain, and whose life becomes even more complicated when a madman decides he’s in love with him and starts stalking him.
Where a fatal balloon accident brought the protagonist and his stalker together in “Enduring Love,” in “Persecution,” the catalytic event is much smaller and quieter, but promisingly powerful all the same. On the metro, Daniel (Duris, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”) sees a woman being slapped for apparently no reason by a panhandler. He tries to comfort the victim afterward, but she rushes away in embarrassment. Then another man (Jean-Hugues Anglade), never named, briefly discusses the event with Daniel, and in that instant becomes hopelessly infatuated with him.
This briskly rendered vignette foreshadows the story’s preoccupation with irrational violence and sudden, uncontrollable shifts of feeling, but unfortunately, the film never reclaims the vitality of this opening scene.
The bulk of the remaining 90 minutes consists of Daniel alternately arguing with his g.f., Sonia (Gainsbourg, essaying yet another tearful, emotionally drained femme after “Antichrist”), and fending off his stalker’s advance. The problem with Daniel and Sonia is that while they love each other, he suffers from jealousy and acute insecurity, often doubting her affection despite manifest evidence to the contrary. By way of counterpoint, the stalker refuses to take no for an answer, even when Daniel resorts to violence to keep him away. Auds might expect this is all leading to a hairy climax of sorts, but the denoument just fizzles out on a flat note.
While all the gassing about feelings may rep movie heaven for some, most viewers are likely to feel frustrated with the lack of explanation as to why Daniel and the stalker are emotional wrecks. Similarly, the dialogue mentions that Sonia has some high-powered job that requires a lot of travel, but the script never deigns to explain what it is, or why Daniel is so secretive about his own work renovating apartments. This kind of cursory treatment extends to the supporting characters, many of whom are played by fine thesps such as Hiam Abbass and Alex Descas but barely have more than a dozen lines to speak.
Tech credits are all serviceably pro, but not especially remarkable. Yves Cape’s widescreen lensing has grandeur, but makes the characters’ problems look even more small-scale on such a broad canvas.