Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Corneau’s Love Crime

It is not exactly clear what Christine Riviére’s business involves, beyond high finance and cutthroat betrayals, but she is very good at it. Her supposed protégé Isabelle Guérin learns this the hard way. However, the student has a few tricks to teach the master in Alain Corneau’s devious (but misleadingly titled) Love Crime (trailer here), which opens this Friday in a dry and resilient New York.

A cruel game-player, Riviére calls herself a mentor, but she deliberately uses up and discards her direct reports like yesterday’s newspapers. Guérin is her latest victim, but she has lasted longer than most because of her somewhat ambiguous dedication to her sophisticated boss. Nevertheless, as Riviére’s exploitation becomes ever more obvious, Guérin finally starts to rebel. Not surprisingly, her boss does not take this well, publically humiliating her on multiple occasions, pushing the younger woman to her apparent breaking point.

With Guérin’s mental and emotional health in free fall, exactly the crime we might expect is committed. It appears to be an open and shut case to the authorities, but then Corneau starts pulling the switcheroo. Crime is not a big twist movie per se, but sort of a procedural, showing viewers how the big twist is executed every diabolical step of the way. Indeed, Crime follows in the tradition of some of Claude Chabrol’s best films, outwardly employing the thriller form but artfully altering the narrative focus.

No matter how you classify the film, it is a pleasure to watch the bilingual Kristin Scott Thomas unleash her inner Joan Crawford as Riviére. Tough, smart, and elegant, the term femme fatale is insufficient to describe her dangerous screen presence. Though comparatively restrained, even withdrawn, Ludivine Sagnier’s Guérin quite deftly keeps the audience off balance, which is critical for the film’s success. (To extend the comparison, she also looks a bit like Bette Davis, if you watch the film through an ace bandage.) A perfect study in contrasts, they spark off each other in darkly delightful ways.

As an added bonus, Crime utilizes Pharoah Sander’s haunting “Kazuko” as its soundtrack, which is certainly unorthodox given the exotic instrumentation (tenor sax, koto, and harmonium), but it definitely creates an atmosphere of mystery. (It also happens to be an exquisite piece of music.) Together with Yves Angelo’s cool noir cinematography, Crime is a distinctly stylish production.

Yet, ultimately it is Corneau’s masterful control of the audience that makes the film such an effective thriller, worthy of comparison to the work of Henri-Georges Clouzot. Indeed, he leads viewers exactly where he wants to, carefully stage managing what they see and when, without resorting to blatant manipulation.

Frankly, Crime is a tiny bit twisted, but it is an enormously enjoyable ride. From cast to wardrobe to music, every aspect fits together ingeniously. There just are not enough films like this, so do not miss Crime. Enthusiastically recommended, it opens this Friday (9/2) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.