Film Review: ‘Alleluia’

Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz makes good on John Waters’ prediction that the trashy cult classic 'The Honeymoon Killers' was due for an Internet-era remake.

Alleluia Cannes 2014

As if people need another reason to think twice about online dating, the pitch-black cautionary satire “Alleluia” updates the classic “lonelyhearts” case of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck — who targeted single ladies via personal ads, then moved in and stole their money — to the modern era. Reuniting with director Fabrice Du Welz after 2004’s “Calvaire,” Laurent Lucas astonishingly allows the Belgian suspense-meister to obliterate whatever leading-man prospects he had left, pairing up with Spanish actress Lola Duenas to form the world’s creepiest couple. Picked up by Music Box a month after its Cannes bow, this shield-your-eyes thriller has plenty of time to build its cult profile on the genre-fest circuit.

Adopting a darker, more squirm-inducing style than the 1969 low-budget cult classic “The Honeymoon Killers” (which was very nearly one of Martin Scorsese’s first directing credits), Du Welz treats this retelling of Fernandez and Beck’s killing spree as an exercise in audience discomfort, ratcheting up the tension over the course of four “acts,” each one dedicated to a different victim. The first, a clingy mortuary attendant named Gloria (Duenas), has misgivings about going out with someone she met online, but ultimately agrees to dinner with virtual match Michel (Lucas, playing against his natural, Anthony Perkins-like appeal).

In the most outrageous pre-date ritual since Ben Stiller “cleaned the pipes” in “There’s Something About Mary,” Michel is shown at a small bedroom altar, where he burns a photo of the unlucky lady and repeats the incantation “Let Gloria succumb to my charms.” Gloria is far more receptive than Michel possibly could have hoped. She not only sleeps with him on the first night, but also gives him money for the road in the morning. Then, when he doesn’t call back, she goes searching for him, eavesdropping as he works his “charms” on ladies at a local bar.

Duenas plays Gloria with unnerving intensity. Though she has a young daughter at home, she desperately wants this relationship to work, to the extent that she’s willing to go along with Michel’s con: He can continue to swindle lonely singles as long as he agrees to come back to her in the end (or so she says). But jealousy swiftly puts an end to that when Gloria attacks his next mistress with a hammer during a grotesquely rendered act of intimacy — though that’s nothing compared to the scene that follows, in which she launches into a musical number before putting her morgue-managing skills to use on the corpse.

Seldom has codependency looked more unsettling than it does in Du Welz’s hands. Gloria dumps her daughter and sets off in pursuit of whatever twisted idea of romance she has in her head, transforming Michel’s relatively harmless routine (which at least left the ladies satisfied) into a dangerously homicidal game. Posing as his disturbed sister, Gloria tags along for his various seductions. And every time he starts to develop feelings for another woman, she strikes, leaving him stunned most of all.

Though the real couple was thought to have killed as many as 20 people, the film sticks to re-enacting variations on the relationships featured in “The Honeymoon Killers” (about which ironic admirer John Waters once quipped, “With the Internet dating today, this certainly could happen again”). Where the trashily inept earlier film was all clumsy misdirection and shrill overacting, Du Welz’s interpretation serves as an expertly calibrated dismantling of Hollywood’s perfect-couple myth, suggesting that love — especially that which borders on obsession — can sometimes be the most toxic force on earth. To that end, the helmer shoots both actors in the most unflattering possible way, emphasizing their gargoyle-like qualities, all sharp teeth and waxy skin.

In finding an appropriately hellish look for the film, Du Welz has enlisted the talents of emerging Belgian d.p. Manuel Dacosse, whose neo-giallo work on “Amer” and “The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears” stunningly resurrected a nearly lost strain of horror cinema. “Alleluia” may be a remake, but its somber look couldn’t be more original — all the better for the film to spring its nasty surprises on auds, none more unexpected than the way certain shots remain seared into one’s subconscious in the days and weeks that follow.

Film Review: ‘Alleluia’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 22, 2014. Running time: 93 MIN.

  • Production: (Beligum-France) A Music Box Films (in North America) release of a Panic, Radar Films, Savage Film, One Eyed, Versus presentation, produced in association with Inver Invest, Cofinova 8, with the participation of BeTV, Canal Plus, Cine Plus, with the support of the Cinema and Audiovisual Centre of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, VOO, Fond Audiovisuel of Flanders, Tax Shelter of the Belgian Federal Government, Investors Tax Shelter. (International sales: SND, Paris.) Produced by Vincent Tavier, Clement Miserez, Matthieu Warter. Co-producers, Bart Van Langendonck, Fabrice Du Welz, Jacques-Henri, Olivier Bronckart.
  • Crew: Directed by Fabrice Du Welz. Screenplay, Du Welz, Vincent Tavier. Camera (color, widescreen), Manuel Dacosse; editor, Anne-Laure Guegan; music, Vincent Cahay; production designer, Emmanuel De Meulemeester; costume designers, Florence Scholtes, Christophe Pidre; sound, Emmanuel De Boissieu; supervising sound editor, Fred Meert; visual effects supervisor, Jean-Louis Douuson; visual effects, Be Digital.
  • With: Laurent Lucas, Lola Duenas, Stephane Bissot, Edith Le Merdy, Anne-Marie Loop, Helena Noguerra, Pili Groyne, David Murgia. (French, Spanish dialogue)