After stirring controversy at home, Chinese auteur Lou Ye tackles a fresh setting while retaining his gratingly pessimistic view of human relations in the mostly Paris-set “Love and Bruises.” A raw, jagged, in-your-face study of the self-destructive bond between two lost souls, this intensely acted but emotionally unrevealing angst-fest is hellbent on answering a question few were asking to begin with, proving it takes more than rough, feral sex to bridge cultural chasms between individuals. Pic’s modish handheld aesthetic will earn it some arthouse cred, and the casting of Tahar Rahim (“A Prophet”) should ensure Lou’s broadest Western showcase yet.
Lou’s sexually and politically charged “Summer Palace” (2006) led the Chinese government to restrict him from filmmaking for five years, a ruling he defied by making the frisky 2009 melodrama “Spring Fever.” On paper, Lou’s latest project — an adaptation of Jie Liu-falin’s scorching autobiographical novel “Bitch,” which was banned in mainland China — suggested he was out to deliver another envelope-pushing exercise.
Oddly enough, this collaboration between two outlawed Chinese artists seems disinclined to offend Sino sensibilities: The title has been toned down; the sex, though abundant, is not especially explicit; and the Gallic backdrop effectively neutralizes official Chinese objections to this largely French-financed feature. Indeed, the ever-present European strain in Lou’s work seems to have overwhelmed his other impulses here, yielding a sort of “Last Tango in Paris Lite” that, for all its apparent interest in differences of class, gender and ethnicity, lacks a distinctive personality or culturally specific identity of its own.
The pic does not, however, lack anguish or extremity. “Love and Bruises” hurls viewers into the deep end from its opening scene, in which Hua (model-thesp Corinne Yam), a 28-year-old Chinese woman working in France as a teacher, is unceremoniously dumped by an older lover. Weeping her way through the streets of Paris, Hua barely has time to recover from this emotional blow before she’s physically knocked off her feet by 25-year-old construction worker Mathieu (Rahim). Mathieu apologizes effusively and thereafter won’t leave her alone, as his remorse quickly morphs into an all-consuming passion for this sullen, striking beauty.
The improbably swift manner in which this all develops would be almost comical if the results weren’t so grim to behold. Mathieu’s idea of a first date is to subject Hua to some frenzied rutting against a metal fence; later, he insists they cement their bond by mixing their blood. Sexual violence is one of the picture’s main thrusts, particularly in a scene that implies an assault on Hua by one of Mathieu’s pals, cutting away discreetly from her high-pitched screams. Even Hua and Mathieu’s consensual lovemaking (filmed largely above the waist) seems to be a conduit for pain rather than pleasure, a futile attempt by two bodies to merge because their souls cannot.
For all the obvious commitment of their performances, Rahim and Yam haven’t been given an especially wide range of notes to play here. Scene after scene is pitched at near-hysterical levels of aggression and despair, and the characters’ frequent altercations, as well as the tough revelations that come to light about their respective pasts, feel like emotionally rigged obstacles rather than organic developments. Stylistically, the film underscores the couple’s sense of chaos and incompatibility at every turn, from the overly shaky lensing (by the usually expert Yu Lik-wai) and Juliette Welfling’s disjunctive editing to the dubious decision to make Paris look as gray and uninviting as possible. Peyman Yazdanian’s score operates in a subtler register, used at brief intervals to isolate and develop mood.
“Love and Bruises” takes on a bit more nuance when Hua impulsively decides to return to Beijing. Yet the lingering message of the film is the unedifying notion that the social barriers between a university-educated Asian schoolteacher and a French blue-collar hothead — or, for that matter, between any two lovers of such disparate backgrounds — are essentially irreconcilable. While that may be true of this particular twosome, a wiser film would have at least entertained a less punishing alternative; Lou’s insistence that love hurts is, at the end of the day, no more inherently truthful than the idea that romance is nothing but roses and sunshine.