After a few recent misfires, vet helmer Alain Corneau delivers a solid, if somewhat classical, thriller with the taut, sinister psycho-procedural “Love Crime.” Pic initially suggests a sort of Gallic “Damages,” with Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier in the Glenn Close and Rose Byrne roles, but the corporate catfight soon gives way to a cleverly designed whodunit. And even if it’s clear enough who did it, there are still several surprises in store. Cutting perfs from both stars, coupled with Corneau’s sober direction and a dreamlike, jazzy score, should have “Crime” committed in plenty of arthouses outside France.
At a ruthless agribusiness company, Christine (Scott Thomas) rules her minions with a combination of seduction, harassment and blackmail. Her right-hand gal, Isabelle (Sagnier), willingly if naively accepts Christine’s tutelage, and the two form a drop-dead duo, leaving their industry partners drooling from one deal to another. The ladies also enjoy sharing the same man, Philippe (Patrick Mille), an accountant who serves as part sex slave, part co-conspirator.
When a devious colleague (Guillaume Marquet) shows Isabelle a way to one-up Christine in front of her American overseers (Mike Powers, Matthew Gonder), the latter decides it’s time to show everyone who’s really boss. The ensuing battle results in Isabelle’s humiliation at the hands of her co-workers, in a chilling scene that provides a cruel twist on the security-camera blooper video. After that, it’s all-out war, and one of them will soon be reaching for a knife.
Set in stark modernist interiors by production designer Katia Wyszkop (“5×2”) and shot in cool color tones by Corneau’s regular d.p., Yves Angelo (“Germinal”), these early sequences provide a showcase for what the two actresses do best: Scott Thomas plays a calculating high-class dominatrix to Sagnier’s horny and vulnerable underling, and watching them go mano-a-mano offers many pleasures, especially when Isabelle begins to come into her own.
What that means constitutes one of many mysteries to come in the pic’s well-plotted, though at times programmatic, second half, as the narrative revisits earlier scenes to explain how what looked like cold-blooded, thoughtless murder is actually much more. And though Isabelle’s many transformations are not always believable and her motivations not entirely clear, they do keep the viewer guessing until the closing scenes.
Corneau has tackled both the hostile workplace (“Fear and Trembling”) and the policier genre (“Serie noire,” “The Cousin”) in the past, and the script (co-written with Natalie Carter) combines the two into an exploration of its protags’ many vulnerabilities — their driving need to be respected, feared and, as the title suggests, loved. And if the helmer’s direction is never exactly inspiring, it’s rock-solid crisp, capturing the proceedings in controlled two-shots that allow Scott Thomas and Sagnier to tear up everything around them: the scenery, their male co-stars and then one another.
A huge plus is jazz great Pharoah Sanders’ score, filled with saxophone-fueled riffs that give the action an unpredictable and hallucinatory quality — a reminder that we shouldn’t always trust what’s happening onscreen.