An impoverished immigrant, eight-year-old Sophie is picked on mercilessly by her French classmates, except one--an incorrigible boy named Julien whose mother is dying of cancer. The two bond, dispersing their pain in a game of dares that enables them to turn the tables on their tormentors and grief. As they grow older, the game becomes a substitute for the intimacy each fears, embittering them and those around them. Yet they can't let go of it, or of one another.

Its premise seems like a prescript for tragedy, but Love Me If You Dare (Jeux d'enfants) is the opposite, a romantic comedy with a modern sensibility. Directed by Yann Samuell from a screenplay co-written with Jacky Cukier, the film mixes caustic humor and treacly sentiment--part Mickey Rourke, part Jerry Lewis--in an attempt to reinvigorate a genre too often taken for granted. As if to underscore his intentions, Samuell borrows the surreal style of colleague Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose Amlie brought the romantic comedy into the new century, while deliberately displacing empathy for his leading man and leading lady, confusing his audience with a combination of whimsy and malice.

Samuell pushes the envelope, no doubt. As children (Thibault Verhaeghe and Josphine Lebas-Joly), Julien and Sophie are adorable brats, the kind of kids who leverage their innocence, but their dares are inevitably vulgar. As university students (Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard), they are self-indulgent poseurs, using other people as props in their game, which has become crudely lecherous. As adults, they are certified narcissists, capable of wanton destruction if it suits their peevish moods. It's impossible to like these two, although we might find them, at moments, cute, sexy and passionate.

Love Me If You Dare isn't the first romantic comedy to play against type. American directors like Bobby and Peter Farrelly (There's Something About Mary), Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty) and others gleefully mix mayhem and courtship. Their movies are funny, inventive and lucrative, well-produced entertainments riffing off popular culture; they're also violent and often mean-spirited. Modern filmmakers have traded in the sophisticated banter of screwball nonsense for sophomoric sight gags better suited to a coarser age.

Samuell, recognizing the limitations of the new approach, counters with digital technology, creating a film whose visual effects are more engaging than his characters. If young Julien and Sophie are alternately cloying and annoying, their dreams and fantasies (with sets by Jean-Michel Simonet) are uniformly charming, flights of fancy that take them--and us--away from irascible reality. Cinematographer Antoine Roch (with help from digital compositor David Tomaszewski) makes his camera soar, swoop and sail like a hummingbird riding a summer breeze. To assure viewers won't grow bored, or think too hard on Julien and Sophie's life choices, Samuell (with editor Andrea Sedlácková) employs a variety of MTV-ish feints and jabs, a strategy that lends the film frenetic energy on a manageable budget.

In short, Love Me If You Dare is entertaining and appalling at once, an exercise in aesthetics that replaces the traditional unities with paradox, irony and cynicism. Samuell stretches the genre as far as he can to accommodate a surreal ending in which his lovers die happily ever after, with a denouement of the duo as boorish old imps. From a formal point of view, he pulls off a neat trick, but no technique can substitute for agreeable characters finding true love…or what's a romantic comedy for?

--Rex Roberts