Criminal Lovers
(Les Amants criminels)

     In his debut feature film SITCOM, ascendant filmmaker François Ozon
 mixed the conventions of a sex farce with those of television comedy and
 soap opera to craft a fascinating if flawed examination of an oddball family.
 With his second full-length film,
LES AMANTS CRIMINELS (CRIMINAL
   LOVERS)
, the writer-director boldly crosses the mythic overtones of an
 archetypal fairy tale with classic film noir. The result is compelling,
 engrossing and surprising

         From the first frame, Ozon is clearly in charge of the material. Teen
 temptress Alice (Natacha Regnier, the award-winning co-star of
 
THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS) is performing a striptease for her boyfriend
 Luc (Jérémie Renier) who is blindfolded. Immediately, the dynamic of the
 relationship is established: Alice emerges as manipulative and
 domineering while Luc is seen as passive and disengaged. (He is not in
 the least aroused by her machinations.) Alice persuades him to prove
 his love by helping her kill an Arab classmate, the handsome, haughty
 Saïd (Salim Kechiouche). Alice is both attracted and repelled by Saïd and
 she plies her feminine wiles on both boys, setting the stage for the
 murder.

         Once they have committed the crime, the pair set off to the woods
 to dispose of the body, which proves more difficult than imagined,
 especially after Alice and Luc get lost in the woods. Hungry and tired, they
 stumble upon a cabin and like two of the Three Bears they enter and
 help themselves to food. Like Hansel and Gretel, the duo find themselves
 caught and held captive, not by a witch but by an eccentric woodsman
 (Miki Manojlovic) who had witnessed them burying the body. He imprisons
 Alice and Luc in his rat-infested cellar (where he has also placed Saïd's
 body) and then learns the details of the crime by reading Alice's diary.

         Ozon plays with audience expectation by shifting from a more
 realistic tone to the more fanciful world. The ostensible villains now
 invoke sympathy for their plight at the hands of the woodsman who
 seemingly plans to kill and eat them. The beauty of Ozon's script and
 direction is that
CRIMINAL LOVERS functions on several levels, paying
 homage to "lovers on the run" films (like
BONNIE AND CLYDE or
 
BADLANDS), the typical noir female (perhaps best embodied by Barbara
 Stanwyck in
DOUBLE INDEMNITY), the teen film genre and even Bruno
 Bettleheim's study of children's literature
The Uses of Enchantment: The
 Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.

         Such an eclectic mixture shouldn't necessarily work, but for the
 most part it does.
CRIMINAL LOVERS is a more assured work than
 
SITCOM. Ozon's main weakness as a filmmaker is his inability (or
 unwillingness) to overcome his reliance on genre conventions as a means
 of propping up weaknesses in the script. There are occasional, jarring
 gaps in logic that Ozon expects the audience to accept merely because
 he invokes the mythos of fairy tales and employs attractive visual
 flourishes. His astute use of flashbacks to flesh out the back story and
 add psychological depth and the superlative work of the cast also work
 to hide the flaws of the film.

         Natacha Regnier is superb as the scheming, seductive Alice. She
 plays against her blonde angelic looks to create a truly scary creature --
 a young woman driven by boredom and fantasy. It is she who enjoys the
 thrill of the hunt and taking charge until things start to go awry, at which
 point she exhorts Luc to "be a man." Jérémie Renier has perhaps the more
 difficult role, playing an essentially passive type who eventually assumes
 those qualities that Alice possesses in order for them to survive.
 Manojlovic is appropriately creepy as the woodsman.

         Ozon is still in the early stages of his career.
CRIMINAL LOVERS
 marks a fine step forward in his development as a filmmaker.


                                 Rating:                B-


                         
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.