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French Cinema

Crime d'amour (France 2010)

Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier

This was the last film of Alain Corneau, veteran French director of polars – amongst other genres. He died aged 67 soon after the film was released. I watched the film on a long-haul flight – not the best format for critiquing a film. Even so, I could see that this was an interesting idea. Whether Corneau fully pulled it off, I’m not sure, but for a man suffering from cancer it was a brave venture.

Co-written by Corneau and Nathalie Carter, Crime d’amour (‘Love Crime‘ for the Anglophone world) is an intriguing genre mix. I would class it as a polar combined with something of a film noir. I’ve seen it described as a psychological thriller and even compared to La tourneuse de pages but I don’t think that’s really appropriate, although revenge is a central feature of the plot. North American reviewers have suggested a cross between Dangerous Liaisons and Working Girl – quite a neat description, but not very helpful in a French context. In some ways, I was reminded of Louis Malle’s Lift to the Scaffold (1958), partly because of the office setting and partly because of the detailed procedural elements of a crime. It’s quite difficult to give an outline of the plot without ‘spoiling’ the pleasures of the film, so I’ll just offer the film’s premise.

Outline

Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a senior executive in a French subsidiary of an American-owned food company. She is highly ambitious and angles for a top post in the US. Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier) is a junior executive in the same company working as Christine’s assistant. Christine seems particularly interested in giving Isabelle a helping hand and offers her a trip to Cairo to promote a new product. In Cairo she works with Phillipe, a young man working for an associate company – and also Christine’s lover. Isabelle turns out to be as driven as Christine and she does well with the Cairo work. How will the two women behave towards each other in future? Christine instigates a war between the two by stealing credit for Isabelle’s triumph in Cairo and using it for her own advancement. The knives are out.

Commentary

The film is really in two halves. In part one the conflict is set up and developed until it reaches a climax with the ‘crime’ of the title. In the second half there is a criminal investigation by the police, an arrest and imprisonment and a highly contrived defence by the perpetrator. The first half is rather unrealistic in terms of business procedures but gripping because of the playing by the two stars and Corneau’s tight direction. (French office life is presented as extremely glamorous.) I found the second half to be possibly too clever in its plotting and I was slightly irritated by it. The plot hinges on the procedures of French criminal law which allows a good deal of discretion by the ‘examining/investigating judge’ in an inquisitorial judicial system. I think that this is what marks out the plot trajectories of the polar as quite different to those of British or American crime films which end up in the criminal court.

I know that some critics don’t like Ludivine Sagnier and that Kristin Scott Thomas can do no wrong (especially in the UK and US) but I’m rather taken with Ms Sagnier and this is just as much her film. We don’t get enough crime films focusing on women protagonists. Too often they are diverted into comedy, psychological drama or melodrama. In this case, the film is clearly about the women and their descent into criminal activity. The title, I think, is misleading. Philippe is a rather disposable character and Isabelle has a young male acolyte – a role which is perhaps not fully developed. The crime is too much ambition rather than too much love.

I’m not sure if the film will be released in the UK, although it has been released in New Zealand. Kristin Scott Thomas could be used to sell the film, though her role may be something of a shock for her UK/US fans. The image above helps to suggest how creepy she is, asking Isabelle what perfume she is wearing. By coincidence, one of the other new French releases available on my Air France flight was another Kristin Scott Thomas film, Elle s’appelait Sarah. A very different film, this one has just been nominated for a César (the French equivalent of the Oscars). Scott Thomas plays an American magazine journalist investigating the notorious round-up of French Jews in July 1942 in which they were held in a velodrome before being sent to the camps. I watched the first few minutes of this film but I was too tired to continue watching. This film will, I’m sure, get a UK release. We’ve reported on several Kristin Scott Thomas films recently and it’s worth pointing out that in both these French films she gets to speak English.

Here’s the New Zealand trailer for Crime d’amour:

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