Blame it on the moonlight if you will, but any folly stays resolutely earthbound in “Fool Moon,” a plainly sincere but tooth-achingly precious directorial debut for actor-poet-filmmaker Grégoire Leprince-Ringuet. Often a grave, sympathetic presence on camera — well-used by such auteurs as André Téchiné, Bertrand Tavernier and Christophe Honoré — the likeable 28-year-old here comes unstuck under his own gaze; the fusion of film, theater and self-composed verse in this wispy young love triangle is more puppyishly ambitious than it is artful. Premiered as a special (read: not quite classifiable) screening at Cannes, this fully French but less-than-full “Moon” is unlikely to rise in many non-domestic territories.
“The strength love requires asks too much of me — I shake like a leaf,” wails Ondine (Amandine Truffy), the willowy girlfriend of bookish Parisian Paul (Leprince-Ringuet), abruptly terminating their romance following a seemingly innocuous afternoon scuffle in the park. If she finds their relationship draining, audiences will probably feel likewise: Mere minutes into the film, this predominantly heightened style of confrontational confession may alienate more viewers than it engages. “Give not your heart to one who cannot take it,” Paul is later counseled; Leprince-Ringuet’s poetic observations walk the line between high-minded sentiment and Hallmark philosophy throughout.
In recovery from this wordy breakup, Paul resolves never to give his heart to anyone at all. Instead, engaged in a one-man game of dangerous liaisons, he sets out to break someone else’s for sport — and settles on winsome dancer Camille (a softly alert Pauline Caupenne, faring best of the three principals) as his victim. Needless to say, the course of untrue love does not run smooth, as magic spells and mystic encounters with riddle-trading tramps conspire to unlock Paul’s affections. These magical-realist developments play out in discursive, stagily stylized fashion, explicitly nodding to 19th-century romanticism. A couple of whirring dance sequences, scored and choreographed with more vim than anything else in the film, reflect more contemporary balletic influence — and suggest Leprince-Ringuet paid particularly keen attention on set with the aforementioned Honoré.
Some patient English-speaking viewers could be mildly beguiled by such whimsy, particularly with musical selections from Tchaikovsky and Debussy to sweep them along. As an exercise in rhythmic verbal gymnastics, however, “Fool Moon” is harder for non-Francophones to appreciate, especially with many of the screenplay’s rhymes and fiddly figures of speech (drawn from the writer-helmer’s own poetry) going unprotected by the frequently stiff subtitles. Perhaps translation can be blamed for such tangled lines as, “Love is a war where the greatest danger is not injury but fusion.” Still, by the time Leprince-Ringuet invokes “Chet Baker, dear angel from hell” in a climactic speech, it’s hard not to think he’s in a little over his head. Meanwhile, the sexual politics of this rigidly male-oriented triangle, in which women serve primarily to direct our protagonist’s emotions, are a tad mildewed: “To him I owe being a woman today, yet I led him into the abyss!” one cries.
Aspect ratios that shift with the protagonist’s apparent level of consciousness provide the most visual interest in a film that otherwise limits its eccentricities to the storytelling itself. David Chambille’s lensing is loose and sun-lightened when the film’s in Paris-wandering realist mode, reverting to duskier, stage-set lighting and composition in more surreal interludes. Recurring excursions to a rambling urban park — providing the film with its French title, “La forêt de Quinconces” — don’t much enhance the narrative, but a green lung amid all this interior angst is hardly unwelcome.