STRAND/Color/2.35/Dolby Digital & DTS/126 Mins./Not Rated

Cast: Sophie Quinton, Laurent Lucas, Catherine Jacob, Yasmine Belmadi, Michèle Moretti, Valérie Donzelli.
Credits: Directed by Gilles Marchand. Screenplay by Marchand, Vincent Dietschy. Produced by Caroline Benjo, Carole Scotta. Director of photography: Pierre Milon. Production design: Laurent Deroo. Edited by Robin Campillo. Sound: Frédéric Ullman. Music by Doc Matéo, Alex Beaupin, Lily Margot, François Eudes. Costume designers: Virginie Montel, Isabelle Pannetier. A Haut et Court and M6 Films co-production. In French with English subtitles.

The French are masters of the metaphysical mystery. One thinks of the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, for example, or those of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, whose work inspired Clouzot’s Les Diabolique and Hitchcock’s Vertigo. But the French sensibility can be as enigmatic as their entertainments. Such is the case with Who Killed Bambi? (Qui a tué Bambi?), a stylish thriller with intellectual pretensions that will strike Americans as a straight-to-cable soap opera with an all-too-familiar cast—the evil doctor, the ingénue nurse, the earnest boyfriend…

First-time director Gilles Marchand, who as co-author of the delightfully disturbing With a Friend Like Harry… proved himself a skillful screenwriter, chooses to reveal his villain straight away. Handsome but aloof Dr. Philipp (Laurent Lucas) has the odious habit of abusing his female patients during late-night visits. Naturally, he takes particular interest in Isabelle (Sophie Quinton), a doe-eyed nursing student who swoons in his presence. “You’re like Bambi, the Walt Disney character,” he tells her after one of her fainting spells, “you can’t keep upright.”

Isabella, it turns out, has an inner-ear condition that requires surgery. She intuitively suspects Dr. Philipp, yet she is irrationally drawn to him, despite that she has a devoted boyfriend (Yasmine Belmadi), an orderly who is as agreeable as his rival is sinister. Ironically, Isabella’s older cousin, Véronique (Catherine Jacob), a nurse, spends most of the film disparaging the faithful beau while praising the demented doc. If she only knew that this evil otolaryngologist is stealing anesthesia for his nefarious compulsion, a malpractice that wreaks havoc in the operating room when patients wake up screaming on the table.

Marchand wants to explore the complicity between sadist and victim (Dr. Philipp literally gets inside Isabella’s head) as well as the contraction of sex and death (dream sequences provide the psychoanalytical angle). But it’s hard to take him seriously when he mixes melodrama with suspense so self-consciously. Who Killed Bambi? comes close to camp, even as the director coaxes his audience to contemplate the willing commingling of innocence and corruption.

By design or coincidence, the film has much in common with those of David Cronenberg. Production designer Laurent Deroo exaggerates the sterility of the modern hospital, his stark-white sets flooded with florescent light. He also makes good use of drapes, an inexpensive way of achieving an eerie otherworldliness. Needles and medical apparatuses guarantee that queasy feeling, but cinematographer Pierre Milon knows how to lens preternatural environments. His establishing shots of the medical complex, with its vapor-lit car parks and artificial landscaping, are wonderfully spooky. Sound editor Gérard Hardy amplifies the anomie with distorted ambient noise, and the film’s score effectively evokes David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti.

Who Killed Bambi? is fun to watch, and newcomer Quinton has big, beautiful eyes, but the movie’s contrived plot, forced conclusion and sentimental denouement rob it of real suspense and meaning. This mystery is more metafizzle than metaphysical…noir buffs will wish it a fawn adieu.