Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Cruel: The Lonely French Serial Killer

Pierre Tardieu is sort of like the French version of Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty, except he also happens to be a serial killer. The world sees him as an unassuming man in his late forties, who works menial temp jobs and cares for his dementia-suffering father. He also has a secret dungeon. However, his life gets really complicated with a normal woman responds to his overtures in Eric Cherrière’s Cruel (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

His grandfather built that underground chamber to hide Jews during the war. Sadly, Tardieu now uses it for evil purposes. He keeps them alive for a good while, not necessarily torturing them, but to watch and observe. By serial killer standards, he is quite disciplined when it comes to keeping souvenirs—I.D. cards only. Of course, he maintains a detailed journal on each. Since he deliberately alters his M.O. each time, the Toulouse coppers do not even know there is a serial killer in their midst.

One of Tardieu’s few healthy relationships is with the owner of the independent bookstore he used to frequent as a child. Acting on the best of intentions, the old proprietor introduces him to Laure Ouari, an attractive music teacher. Having some mysterious tragedy in her past, Ouari is rather receptive to Tardieu’s halting shyness, which she understandably but wrongly equates with a gentle nature. Things start to click between them, but Tardieu still has his latest victim on his hands.

Cruel starts with all the typically sadistic serial killer business in the first act, but it makes a welcome shift into more Hitchockian territory once Tardieu and Ouari meet. Ironically, this deceptive dance is arguably more psychologically twisted, as well as much more fun to watch. That means viewers should understand Cruel gets considerably better as it progresses.

Jean-Jacques Lelté is terrific as Tardieu, all sad-eyed and tightly wound, but with an electrically charged sense of underlying menace. We come to understand how he became such a monster, but we never identify with him. Magali Moreau’s Ouari is also unusually smart and engaging for a potentially blind-sided victim. In his brief scene, Stéphane Henon memorably lays a further smackdown on the film as the existentially frustrated investigating detective.

Cruel will definitely make viewers squirm, but mostly in the right way. Cherrière takes his time establishing the characters and laying the groundwork for future twists and turns, but the film never feels slack or labored. In fact, it develops into of quite a strong thriller, especially compared to other recent films also focusing on a serial killer’s POV. Recommended for fans of dark, moody genre fare, Cruel is now available on DVD from Film Movement’s Omnibus label.