Indie Film Review: Love Crime (Crime d’amour)

Ruthless corporate executive Catherine (The English Patient‘s Kristin Scott Thomas) revels in the ‘cat and mouse’ scenario through which she exploits, humiliates and torments her younger assistant Isabella, but underestimates her prey’s intelligence, and more importantly, the extremes to which she can be pushed by desperation and scorn. The french language thriller Love Crime succeeds in crafting a battle of wits that is both enticing and painful but the procedural manner and overall lack of artistry by which its latter half unfolds lacks a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’.

A final project from the late director Alain Corneau, Love Crime is set predominantly within the Paris offices of a multinational corporation. Isabella (actress Ludivine Sagnier) is introduced in the opening sequence, a late-night meeting in the home of Christine, as a capable but restrained subordinate who gushes with naive deference to her superior. She is bright and talented but her perfessional identity exists independent of the little girl inside that “just wanted to be loved”, and she resorts to daily bouts of extended physical exertion in order to “forget herself”. Christine in turn feigns a sense of compassionate piety towards Isa, styling herself as a surprisingly intimate mentor. Isabella is largely content to be in the service of a tyrant despite the pity of her coworkers and only comes to appreciate the totality of her boss’s callousness when Christine takes credit for some of her work in order to clinch a promotion to the New York office.

One could imagine that had the back and forth between Isabella and Christine been just about work, that it may have remained relatively civil, but as the film’s title alludes, this is not the case. Wrapped up in the office feud is handsome Phillipe (Patrick Mille), who is introduced as a business partner/off and on fling to Catherine, but  becomes passionately involved with Isabella upon the pair’s business trip to Cairo at the beginning of the film. Isabella thrusts aside her inhibitions in a fit of newfound love for Phillipe and yet demonstrates a continued unhealthy fascination with Catherine by demanding to know what she was like in bed. Despite his confident exterior Phillip is actually in dire straits. He has found himself in Catherine’s pocket as a result of some illicit business decisions and as events unravel he is just another pawn on her chess board with which to inflict pain on Isabella.

L to R, Isabella (Ludivine Sagnier) and Catherine (Kristin Scott Thomas)

The first two acts of Love Crime are slick and thrilling. Director Alan Corneau transforms a sterilized office into a psychological playground steeped in tension. He establishes Kristin Scott Thomas’ Catherine as Gordon Gekko meets Cruella De Vil and energizes an otherwise static environment via quick ’cause and effect’ cuts between his characters’ action and the often devastating effects they have on others. Each new move, whether it be blackmail or public humiliation, begs the question of its response, and as the stakes continue to escalate it’s difficult not to be fearful of what’s coming next. Corneau is also to be commended for sound design, or lack there of. For the majority of the film there is absolutely no music, which adds rather than detracts from the thrills, as it allows for Catherine and Isabella to float in eery moments of silent contemplation. Among the few exceptions is a simple Buddhist wind chime noise that begins to accompany Catherine after she is seen sitting in front of a yin yang sign. Yes, her cruelty is Zen-like. The slick pay-off here happens midway through the film when Catherine has delivered a particularly devastating blow to Isabella, who is stumbling through the office in a feverish mixture of whaling and sobbing. Corneau brings out the frame to include a security camera in the corner of the room and with just a few wind chimes we known that Catherine is watching, and most likely quite pleased.

And then, Corneau drops the ball. Isabella is a meticulous problem-solver and despite being pushed to the brink of mental instability she is able to disconnect and work her plan for ultimate (murderous) revenge on Catherine in much the same way should would a business hurdle. She plans how it will be done. She plans what will happen directly after. She plans how people will react. She plans how she will react to how they react, and goes about putting all the pieces together to set everything in motion. Unfortunately, and this is a strange case of a director who could have learned something from his character, Corneau should have perhaps done a bit more creative thinking about how he wanted to portray all of that planning on screen. In a third act that should have been a brilliant resolution and continuation of the gloriously thrilling tension built early on, he instead brings his narrative to a stand-still with tedious procedural hurdles (of the Law and Order kind), conflicting characterizations and lame ‘tell-all’ black and white flashbacks that insult the audience’s intelligence and feel completely out of place. Even the early elegance of the sound design takes an odd turn, with a distracting jazz trumpet riff dubbed over many of Isabella’s late-game brooding blank stares.

Love Crime is not a great film. And yet, despite an admittedly disappointing finish it relishes within a seedy atmosphere, manages to be thrilling without a single gunshot or explosion and boast some truly enjoyable performances, often despicably so. Fans of french film, fans of independent films in Louisville (and vested in their continued availability) and non-fans who are simply intrigued by the idea of a white-collar crime film that is not about Americans, Love Crime might just be worth your time.

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Chris Ritter <<<<<< <<<<<<