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Berlin Film Review: ‘Eva’

Isabelle Huppert and Gaspard Ulliel are well-matched as icy lover-foes, but Benoît Jacquot's initially seductive psychological thriller comes apart around them.

Benoît Jacquot
Gaspard Ulliel, Isabelle Huppert

1 hour 42 minutes

It makes sense that a single novel — in this case, James Hadley Chase’s 1945 potboiler “Eve” — would be adapted by both Joseph Losey and, over half a century later, Benoît Jacquot. Both directors are perverse aesthetes with an affinity for lurid art, as well as prolific, on-the-fly experimenters. For both, the resulting adaptation is a slinky curio that fits snugly into each’s oeuvre without matching the best of it. Alluringly led by Gaspard Ulliel as an acclaimed playwright whose career is built on artistic theft, and Isabelle Huppert as the prostitute leading him semi-willingly into ruin, “Eva” begins as hot buttered nonsense of the least resistible variety before, echoing the writer’s block that propels its daft narrative, it runs drily out of ideas. International distributors will be drawn by the talent alone, particularly a post-“Elle” Huppert once more working nasty genre terrain with queenly poise, but the protagonist’s obsessive fixation won’t be shared by audiences.

If “Eva” is finally remembered for few other reasons, it has already earned a footnote in cinematic history for being the film to finally, formally bind the screen images of Huppert and Jeanne Moreau, who played a younger, slightly less razor-cut Eva for Losey in 1962. (Tying things in a neat bow of trivial pursuit, Losey worked with both women in 1982’s “The Trout.”) It’s as a study in star image, meanwhile, that Jacquot’s film is most interesting. Huppert can be relied upon to add strange, compelling psychological texture to even the least complete material, and no one who shows up to “Eva” for another of her distinctive, forthright studies in mature female sexuality — literally cracking the whip this time, in a zip-streaked leather mini and bobbed vixen wig — will leave entirely disappointed.

But it’s a well-tailored showcase, too, for Ulliel, who can be a disquietingly opaque performer — suggestions of passion or rage occasionally cracking from beneath his unnerving beauty, like blood slowly seeping from a clean knife cut. “Eva” makes good use of that control, as well as the moodier virtues of his presence: There’s no actor you’d rather shoot swilling whiskey and scowling into a lit fireplace, all while perfectly rocking a cashmere turtleneck.

It’s that aloof ambiguity that carries the film glidingly through its most assured, intriguing stretch at the outset, as sullen male escort Bertrand (Ulliel) shows up for business at the apartment of an elderly, once-celebrated gay writer. Before Bertrand can even get his butt-hugging jeans off, however, the old codger expires of a heart attack, leaving behind an unshared draft of a new play on his desk; Bertrand takes the manuscript and runs. Cut to the young, now rather more suavely attired, pretender basking in the critical and popular success of his hit theatrical debut, and vaguely batting away questions from his agent Régis (Richard Berry) and coolly treated girlfriend Caroline (Julia Roy) about a follow-up with which he’s having understandable trouble making headway — given that he evidently can’t string three words together.

But inspiration of a sort strikes when he heads alone to Caroline’s family country house on a writer’s retreat, only to find it inexplicably — and intractably — invaded by Huppert’s Eva, a secretive call girl who occupies any room with the same thin-lipped air of ownership. Bertrand’s attempts to forcibly remove her land him a thwack on the head an an ensuing concussion, from which point it’s ever harder to tell if Eva is an increasingly fetishized product of his hitherto faltering imagination or a genuine object of masochistic lust; either way, he begins directly building a play from the deranged events that transpire.

Would that Jacquot and Gilles Taurand’s screenplay were similarly electrified by this turn of events. However, the longer Bertrand and Eva dance warily, sexily around each other — albeit with minimal overtly erotic content — the less the film has to reveal about their warped relationship, before all the narrative’s blank spaces, previously well-guarded by editor Julia Gregory, collapse into a fudged finale of stuttering irresolution. It’s a missed opportunity for Jacquot, who pulled off this kind of eerie tease more elegantly (with Roy, largely wasted here, in the lead) in 2016’s oddball Don DeLillo adaptation “Never Ever.”

Ultimately, then, the chief reward of “Eva” lies in watching Huppert and Ulliel — both treated with the rapt, silky devotion they deserve by cinematographer Julien Hirsch and costume designer Marielle Robaut — mutually assembling kinked, jagged character studies from too few puzzle pieces, coloring the ones they have with extra-dark curiosity to compensate. If their individual portraits never quite emulsify into a cohesive human bond, that’s probably the point, though it’d be nice to see more filmmakers play with their prickly chemistry together. Born 30 years apart, the actors play off each other as pleasantly surprising equals: “I don’t know and I don’t care,” Bertrand says when the question of Eva’s age is fleetingly raised. Try running that line past a Hollywood producer; for all its flaws, “Eva’s” shruggingly adult Frenchness is a pleasure in itself.

Berlin Film Review: 'Eva'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 16, 2018. Running time: 102 MIN.

Production: (France) A Macassar Prods. presentation of a EuropaCorp, Arte France Cinéma, NJJ Entertainment, Scope Pictures production. (International sales: Europacorp, Paris.) Producers: Marie-Jeanne Pascal, Mélita Toscan du Plantier. Co-producer: Luc Besson.

Crew: Director: Benoît Jacquot. Screenplay: Jacquot, Gilles Taurand, adapted from the novel "Eve" by James Hadley Chase. Camera (color, widescreen): Julien Hirsch. Editor: Julia Gregory. Music: Bruno Coulais.

With: Gaspard Ulliel, Isabelle Huppert, Julia Roy, Marc Barbé, Richard Berry.

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