If Olivier Assayas’s “Personal Shopper” took a step down from Hermès to H&M, the result would be something like “Never Ever,” an enjoyably slinky but disposable divertissement from director Benoit Jacquot that is unlikely to leave viewers quite as haunted as its characters. Adapting Don DeLillo’s short, New York-set novel “The Body Artist” into a more Gallically terse ghost story of sorts, breakout scripter-star Julia Roy has perhaps shed a few too many of the text’s complications — but adds her own enigmatic shading to proceedings via her terrific leading turn as a grief-stricken performance artist preserving her husband’s presence in more ways than one. Jacquot treats this elliptical material with a certain directorial curtness that may freeze out some viewers, but the alluring premise — plus typically charismatic work from a top-billed Mathieu Amalric as the potential specter — should scare up interest from international distributors.
First up, the disappointing news: All Saints’ creamy pop classic of the same name makes no appearance in “Never Ever,” a pretty meaningless English-language title for a project that might do better to play up its celebrated literary origins. The switch is one of several to be made in the novel’s storied journey to screen: At one point, Italian helmer Luca Guadagnino (“I Am Love”) was set to direct an adaptation with Isabelle Huppert and David Cronenberg. As efficient a tease as Jacquot and Roy’s film is, it’s not quite seductive enough to allay considerations of what might have been, particularly in its pared-down visual execution: Julien Hirsch’s lensing gives proceedings a handsomely oak-mellowed veneer, but the film’s images aren’t as loaded with suggestion as its carefully chosen words.
The film’s establishing sequences are perhaps its sleekest and strongest, as revered film director Jacques Rey (Amalric) happens upon a seductively oblique performance piece by young artist Laura (Roy), while roaming the halls of a Portuguese art gallery where his latest film is screening. Enraptured at first sight, he promptly ditches the post-screening Q&A — and, more rashly, his girlfriend and leading lady Isabelle (Jeanne Balibar) — to whisk her off on his motorbike to a rented coastal lovenest. Within a few swift scenes, they’re married; only a couple of beats later, Rey is dead after his bike collides (possibly intentionally) with a truck in a local highway tunnel.
“Dead,” however, is not exactly a finite term as the film, simplified but generally faithful in form to DeLillo’s novel, follows it into a metaphysical hall of mirrors. (The film makes playful reference to its own medium’s capacity for riding and overriding other artforms: “You stole my audience,” Laura chides Rey when they meet, before conceding, “There was no audience anyway, it’s not cinema.”) Already plagued with unexplained creaks, rattles and shudders even before the accident, the large, spartan house Rey shared (or perhaps still shares) with Laura admits an uncanny entity: not an apparition of her husband, exactly, but a manifestation of collected memories and conversations from their brief marriage. A more mutable presence in the novel, it’s here personified in more concrete ways.
If some of the original idea’s mystique is lost via this practical cinematic short cut, Roy’s lean script still plays extensively on the parallels between Laura’s psychological coping mechanisms and her creative instinct for performance. “Reclaiming myself through you” is a recurringly cited process that takes on several meanings before the film reaches its sharp (and hardly resolved) resolution.
The reliable pleasures of Amalric’s louche, hangdog persona are fully in evidence here; one wonders if Jacquot, meanwhile, has taken a stylistic leaf from Amalric’s direction of 2014’s brief, brisk Georges Simenon adaptation “The Blue Room.” Balibar plays the woman scorned with a tangy blend of bitterness and bewilderment, but it’s Roy, having written herself a part for which many actresses would patiently wait, who does the heavy lifting here: Playing a woman who’s either losing her mind or playing dangerously at it, with as much attention paid to body language as befits her character’s artistic calling, she makes a revelatory, slightly otherworldly impression.