Reviewed at the 2009 Venice Film Festival
The films of French director Patrice Chéreau, such as 'La Reine Margot' and the more recent 'Gabrielle', will be widely known to British aficionados of Gallic cinema. His latest is an ice-cold and, on occasion, punishingly verbose Parisian drama about the rapidly dissolving love affair between a pair of thirtysomething malcontents played by Romain Duris and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Technically, it looks and feels fine, but it’s one of those films which keeps its cards close to its chest while simultaneously offering little impetus to make you actually want to watch it. There’s lots of anguish, crying and pawing at flesh, while the atonal electric guitar dirges on the soundtrack only push the gloom further.
Duris ('Moliere') delivers an uncomfortably histrionic turn as Daniel, an intense, emotionally volatile decorator who is playing long-distance-relationships with his hardworking beau, Sonia (Gainsbourg). His character is not a million miles away from cherished thug/pianist Thomas from Jacques Audiard’s ‘The Beat That My Heart Skipped’, especially as he once-again breaks out that ineffably cool hunched strut and jumbo-collared black overcoat. Although here, the veneer of self-absorption is so impenetrable, that it’s hard to sympathise with his numerous ‘life’ issues, the most pressing of which is the grizzled drifter who keeps breaking into his house and telling him he loves him.
Like his 2005 film, ‘Gabrielle’ and even, to an extent, 2001’s succés de scandale, ‘Intimacy’, Chéreau is again interested in the silent signals and psychological minutiae of relationships, especially the instances that cause a perfectly strong romantic bond to be broken. The script is full of passages where fleeting moments are dissected, where the insecurities of the characters bubble up to make them unexpectedly resentful and angry towards one another. There are two lengthy scenes in a bustling bar where Chéreau darts his camera about and observes how each character reads the room, showing that swells of negative energy can be whipped up with little more than an offhand glance or out of turn conversation.
However, the drama feels far too prescribed and the characters are all inhumanly conceited and way too articulate about their problems to be likeable. Also, why Daniel just doesn't just dob his stalker (who ransacks his flat) in to the police is a big head-scratcher. That Chéreau has chosen to make a film about such disagreeable people should not be knocked, but then when you have zero investment in the central pairing, you need something else to compensate. The film closes on Duris wandering alone through the twilit streets as Anthony and the Johnsons deliver a spine-tingling rendition of Julee Cruise’s ‘Mysteries of Love’. It’s a sweet, if infuriatingly superficial way to end the movie, as it essentially shrugs off the entire preceding drama as just ‘mystery’.