Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 25, 2011 2:44 pm 
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Deadly perfection

Alain Corneau's last film is what French critics described as "an old style film noir" with "clockwork precision," whose chilling inevitability hides several aspects that are wholly new. The problem Corneau set himself was in his own words "After you have committed the perfect crime, of which you will definitely be suspected, how can you prove you are innocent by making yourself look guilty?" And he set up this crime by creating its motivations -- jealousy, humiliation, anger -- in the setting of an elegant, high-level corporate world of the chillingly modern part of Paris called La Défence, and making his main protagonists, killer and victim, top women executives.

Meet Christine (the beautiful and terrifying Kristin Scott Thomas), and Isabelle (the splendid, complex Ludivine Sagnier). In the opening scene, they are together at Christine's impressive house, getting to know each other better -- though on another level neither is a person anyone can get to know. The film is all about the relationship between these two women. Christine is the head of the American company's Paris branch; Isabelle is an immensely talented and smart junior executive there, brilliant and obsessively precise (qualities that will serve a darker purpose later). The relationship is both intimate and distant. The living room, like everything in the film, is cold and gray, but elegant. Isabelle admires a scarf Christine is wearing, and Christine gives it to her. It becomes a link between the two women that nearly chokes the recipient, and then becomes a kind of voodoo object, the linchpin of Isabelle's manipulation of the police.

Christine sends Isabelle to Cairo for an important meeting about a deal Isabelle has done all the planning for. And she sends along her boyfriend, Philippe (Patrick Mille), also a corporate executive as if to give him to her. They remain an extra day and become lovers. But Christine doesn't give anything. She threatens Philippe with a financial scandal and makes him stay away from Isabelle, and she takes all the credit for Isabelle's triumph in Cairo.

The first half of the film is absorbed with Isabelle's and Christine's chilly intimacy and the growing destabilization of Isabelle, a gifted but basically insecure and lonely person. Isabelle has a sister (Marie Guillard), who has a little girl and a husband and a little house and an ordinary, happy life. Isabelle can never live in such a world. She is destined to commit her crime, and get away with it. And that will be the partly quite predictable but in small ways surprising trajectory of the second half of the film.

Some of the scenes are in English and involve American executives of the company: they lend a faintly satirical and comic note to the film. Natalie Carter's dialogue, written with Corneau, develops personalities; his is the steel-trap precision structure of the piece. Corneau at one point wanted to make the film in black and white. Yves Angelo's cinematography is muted enough to almost seem that way, but is set off by a few explanatory sequences (showing how Isabelle set up her crime) in actual black and white. Corneau also was going to omit music entirely. Instead he has used delicate improvisation on the Japanese koto, sounds that might seem relaxing and meditative but here are a delicate signal of mounting alarm. Later Pharaoh Sanders' magnificent saxophone enters. This is based on a 1980's recording Sanders made using koto and sax, called "Kazuko."

Restraint, elegance, perfection, and a kind of chilling predictability dominate Love Crime. This is its virtue and its great weakness, which makes it leave some viewers quite cold. Watch it, however, for the mutually destructive relationship between Christine and Isabelle and for the quintessentially icy depiction of the corporate world, both of which are exceptional and unique. Scott Thomas and Sagnier have never been better. Corneau has gone out with a flourish. Crime d'amour has a deadly perfection. Certain subtleties of expression of the two women; views out office windows; wine glasses extended but not clinked; a killer embracing her victim in a long death grip: these are moments that stay with you. Pharaoh Sanders' music is as elegant and memorable as the Modern Jazz Quartet's for No Sun in Venice.

Crime d'amour opened in Paris August 18, 2010, only twelve days before Alain Corneau's death. The critical reception was almost as chilly as the film. The film is in two halves. The second ought to be exciting but it is more than anything simply methodical. Isabelle gets her perfect crime, with some jail time followed by release and return to take Christine's place in the firm, to, in effect, become her. Le Monde's Thomas Sotinel expressed the viewer's potential problem. To paraphrase, he said that the lead-up to the crime provides all the sensations and motivations we could dream of. We know why it will be committed and who will commit it. But once the victim has been dispatched, we have to put up with a long dénoument that explains a host of details we no longer find quite relevant. Nevertheless, this is a master working at very nearly top form. There is of course one person at the firm, Isabelle's faithful associate Daniel (Guillaume Marquet) who knows all, so that like Alain Delon in René Clément's classic Purple Noon, Isabellle's perfect crime may not be so perfect at the end.

Seen and reviewed as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, a series from March 3-13 in New York presented by UniFrance and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

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