Imagine a Grimm fairy tale centered around two lusty, homicidal teenagers, and you'll have a rough idea of the tone of Criminal Lovers, one of two new films appearing this summer from the gifted young French director Fran‡ois Ozon. (The other is his R.W. Fassbinder adaptation, Water Drops on Burning Rocks, also reviewed in this issue.) Ozon first gained notice with the 1997 featurette See the Sea, an extremely unsettling tale of a psychotic backpacker who earns the trust of a young middle-class mother, and followed with Sitcom, a surreal satire which ruthlessly deconstructed the nuclear family. Ozon continues to provoke with this new entry, a youthful crime story with elements of sadomasochism and latent (and blatant) homosexuality.
The sexually uncertain Luc (Jrmie Rnier) is no match for Alice (Natacha Rgnier), a classic femme fatale who coaxes him into murdering a handsome Arab schoolmate by claiming she's been raped by the Arab and his friends. (More likely, Alice couldn't handle her attraction to this 'alien' boy.) Luc and Alice hit the road and bury the body in the forest, but their subterfuge is witnessed by a burly woodsman. The couple are discovered taking refuge in that very woodsman's cabin and, unluckily for them, he's even more sadistic than his visitors. He locks Alice in the cellar with the Arab's body and assorted rats, and grooms Luc into becoming his personal sex slave. As grim as Grimm fairy tales often get, they are never quite this kinky.
Ozon makes deliberate reference not only to the Brothers Grimm, but to several landmark movies. His whimsical use of forest animals evokes the dreamlike flight of the children in Charles Laughton's great The Night of the Hunter; the lovers in the woods bring to the mind the final moments of Gun Crazy; and there's a climactic bloodbath straight out of Bonnie and Clyde. (Ozon also borrows from Bonnie and Clyde a leading man whose impotence spurs him to prove his manhood through violence.) The forest ogre, of course, is a fairy-tale staple, but Ozon nervily also makes him a homosexual predator-a not-distant relation to the more urbane, aging gay wolf in his next film, Water Drops on Burning Rocks.
Ozon's subversive themes in both new films are made more palatable to the general art-house audience through his confident directorial style. No matter how claustrophobic his situations get (Water Drops all takes place inside one apartment), his visuals are always lively and his performers consistently deliver. Natacha Rgnier, the memorably troubled girl from The Dreamlife of Angels, ably captures the contradictions in Alice-her insecurity and manipulative power, her murderous rage and her tenderness toward an innocent animal. The similarly named Jrmie Rnier, who played the boy in the terrific Belgian drama La Promesse, grows up fast in this film, with a brave performance that requires him to be both killer and victim. Manojlovic, veteran of three Emir Kusturica films, is altogether menacing, but with glimmers of human feeling, as the unnamed woodsman.
The cinema has a long history of lethal couples on the run, but Criminal Lovers manages to bring a fresh and impudent spin to a familiar movie genre.