A Closeted Hansel and a Murderous Gretel

François Ozon’s Criminal Lovers , from Mr. Ozon’s screenplay, is an ideologically gay movie strenuously disguising itself as a traditional young-lovers-on-the-run adventure, a genre descended from Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once (1937), Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1949), Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us (1974), and even the less romantic and more nihilistic Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers (1969) and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994).

What is disturbingly devious about Mr. Ozon’s approach to the genre is the one-sided malignancy attributed to teenage Alice (Natacha Régnier) as she manipulates confused adolescent Luc (Jérémie Renier) into committing the gratuitous murder of cocky high school boxer Said (Salim Kechiouche). Alice is presented as a bit of a savant in the maudit mold in an early classroom sequence, but she turns out to be a pathological liar with her inflammatory invention of a lurid gang rape supposedly orchestrated by Said with his boxing buddies. Truth to tell, Alice is a bitchy virgin who seeks the thrilling ecstasy of taking another’s life.

We are a long way from the Leopold and Loeb murders, in which both participants shared in the immoral arrogance of their actions. By contrast, Mr. Ozon never misses an opportunity to make Luc seem more like Alice’s victim than her accomplice.

The comparatively covert gay film masters of the past, such as F.W. Murnau (1888-1931), Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) and George Cukor (1899-1983), were never beset with the titillating temptations available in the current soft-core era. At times in Criminal Lovers , it seems that Mr. Ozon is putting on an all-male peep show through the subterfuges of baths and showers. Alice, meanwhile, teases a bit at the beginning, but is never stripped to the buff and is never shown in either bath or shower.

Why should this bizarre discrepancy be of any artistic significance? This question constitutes the critical cop-out for labeling as politically incorrect any imputation of flagrant sexism to a gay director. Mr. Ozon is not without talent, but since his heart is distant from the depiction of boy-girl romance with any degree of truth or conviction or even genuine sentiment, his attempts at emotional expression fall flat.

When Luc and Alice drive out to the country to dispose of Said’s corpse, they plunge so deeply and so pointlessly into the wilderness that they can’t find their way back to the car. Indeed, they are so inept in every way that they make the doomed camera crew in The Blair Witch Project look like seasoned pathfinders. As they drift downstream in a rowboat, Luc and Alice pass into the realm of fairy tales, particularly “Hansel and Gretel,” which Mr. Ozon has acknowledged in an interview to be his favorite.

Sure enough, there is a temporarily empty cabin with food for the starving couple. Suddenly they find themselves imprisoned by a mysteriously authoritative woodsman played by Belgrade-born Miki Manojlovic, an internationally eminent character actor, and seemingly about twice the size of Luc and Alice put together.

Once the woodsman enters the picture, he takes turns groping for Luc’s soul and then his body. (In the woodsman’s grasp is the only time in the film that Luc has an orgasm.) For Alice the woodsman has nothing but contempt after reading her diary, which she has conveniently toted along with her in the forest. She is bad, bad, bad in the woodsman’s eyes, but Luc may be saved from her machinations if Luc will abandon her. There are some intimations here of possible cannibalism in the offing.

Somehow or other, Luc and Alice escape the woodsman, and the movie closes on what Mr. Ozon seemingly intends to be a tragic Liebestod . Ultimately, it is Mr. Ozon’s inventiveness with lyrical imposture that made Criminal Lovers such a queasy experience for this reviewer.

A Second Look at Another Naked City: Paris

Jules Dassin’s Rififi ( Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes ), from a screenplay by Mr. Dassin, with the collaboration of René Wheeler and Auguste le Breton, is the restored version of a 1955 classic film noir that was hailed at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival by the late François Truffaut (1932-1984) as “the best film noir I’ve ever seen: A marvel of skill and inventiveness.”

One may argue marginally with Truffaut’s superlatives, but it is little short of a miracle that the relentlessly blacklisted Mr. Dassin got to make the film at all, inasmuch as the tentacles of the anti-Red octopus stretched across the European continent through the 50’s to threaten American boycotts of any Dassin-directed films.

I have never read le Breton’s original source book for Rififi , but Truffaut declared that it was the worst crime novel he had ever read, and yet from it Mr. Dassin had made his noir masterpiece, which demonstrated to Truffaut the importance of directors in making movies: “Dassin shot the film on the street during high winds and rain, and he reveals Paris to us (Frenchmen) as he revealed London to the English ( Night in the City ) and New York to the Americans ( Naked City ). It would be unfair not to credit also the chief cameraman, Philippe Agostini, who truly worked miracles under very unusual conditions: the interior shots in actual dark bistros, nighttime exteriors without lights, the platform of the Port-Royal subway station, tiny details of decor etc.

“Everything in Rififi is intelligent: screenplay, dialogue, sets, music, choice of actors … Jean Servais, Robert Manuel, and Jules Dassin are perfect. The two failures are the female casting and the specially written song, which is execrable.”

Truffaut has shrewdly analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of Rififi without entirely proving its supposed pre-eminence in the realm of moody caper movies. John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) covered much the same ground as Rififi would five years later, and with much more clarity and conviction. Oddly, The Asphalt Jungle was too downbeat for American audiences, and was as much a flop over here as the even more downbeat Rififi was a smash over there.

Mr. Dassin has always shown more of a flair for nocturnal atmosphere than for coherent character development. Even in France, Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) with Bob le Flambeur (1955), and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), and Jacques Becker (1906-1960) with Touchez pas au Grisbi (1953) were stylistically superior to Mr. Dassin and enjoyed enough financing to afford stronger casts and production values, which is to say that Rififi was made on the proverbial shoestring.

Rififi is ultimately a two-hour B picture with some desperate contrivances in the plot to shape the film into a tragedy of the hommes durs in the Parisian lower depths. The character that Dassin himself plays violates the rules of the criminal brotherhood and is executed by an erstwhile comrade in crime. Could the blacklisted director have been thinking of his implacable and merciless enemies in the various Congressional inquisitions that plagued us for too long?

An Affair Under Any Other Name

Frédéric Fonteyne’s An Affair of Love , from a screenplay by Philippe Blasband, was more or less favorably reviewed by me a few weeks ago under the title A Pornographic Affair ( Une Liaison Porno-graphique ). The first thing I wrote about this suggestively titled work was that it was anything but. Now I am baffled by the title change to something that, for a French film, is not only utterly stereotypical but also hovers on the edge of being ungrammatically stupid English. How can you invert the familiar term “love affair” into the ghastly “affair of love,” as if you are trying to imitate a French speaker fumbling with the English language?

I liked the film mainly for the performances of Nathalie Baye as a single woman who takes out a personal ad in a specialized makeout publication, and Sergi López as the man who answers it to help her fulfill her sexual fantasy. We still never learn what the fantasy is, either visually or conversationally, but the weekly encounters eventually generate a feeling of intimacy between the two anonymous sex partners, each of whom begins to consider a more serious commitment to the other.

For once, the hotel-room door does not remain discreetly closed. On this occasion the camera records a conventionally passionate copulation, which under the peculiar circumstances qualifies as an experimental adventure. The story is ingeniously told through a series of flashbacks in which the man and the woman separately reveal their most intimate thought processes to an unseen anonymous interviewer. The fact that there are no joint interviews suggests two post-mortems on a failed alliance.

The point is that the new title is even more of a cheat than the old one. This is not an “affair of love” but an affair of failed trust and confidence that blocks love from entering the picture at all. It is sad but true, and the movie is nothing like its banal new title.