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Can unlikable characters carry a knockabout romantic comedy?

A Light that Never Goes On 

Can unlikable characters carry a knockabout romantic comedy?

The perverse new French film Love Me If You Dare is a rare date movie for romantic masochists. We know who we are. Yes, it's a movie in which would-be mates prefer to punish each other rather than submit to their obvious, crushing love. But to the credit of the film's director, a first-timer named Yaan Samuell, he doesn't shy from the generally repellent consequences of his premise. At times, the film's title seems like a challenge to the audience: The movie could almost as profitably be called Hate Me If You Dare.

In tracing the narrative of his would-be-but-won't lovers, Samuell follows the trend of European pop films of providing exceptionally busy camerawork. Indeed, there's a high quotient of Amélie-style visual tics, with sudden speeded-up images and strange camera angles, insistently bouncy music and a quite photogenic female lead. Still, director Samuell, who also co-wrote the script, has little use for Amélie's reassuring cuteness. Rather, the snappy effects of his film, the breathless pace and Nick Hornby-style hyperarticulate voiceover narration serve to obscure what is often a very sad story of self-destructive spitefulness and cruelty. (Fans of Amélie should beware of this film. Although the surface texture is similar, Love Me If You Dare is an Amélie for fans of such knife-in-the-heart classics like The Piano Teacher.)

The story is this: Two children, Julien and Sophie, become inseparable friends when the boy offers comfort after the girl has suffered another round of vicious teasing from classmates due to her Polish ethnicity. He offers her a decorative tin box as consolation, and in return, she offers a dare. He accepts, and releases the parking brake on the school bus in which the girl's tormentors are sitting. Sweet revenge--served boiling hot--and a friendship in the face of childhood's horrors is born.

Their relationship turns out to be an unorthodox union, one that finds expression in the back and forth game of dares in which they pass the tin box back to one another after each successful completion. He dares her to spew profanity in class (nouns that start with B: blowjob, buggery, bitch and so on) and she in turn dares him to pee on the school principal's carpet when they're sent to him for discipline. These and other stunts in the early scenes are funny, anarchic and innocent, in a way that only the French can properly manage (as in The 400 Blows, for example), but director Samuell is intent on exploring darker, more sadistic and mutually destructive impulses.

The slide down begins with the inevitable scene in which they compare notes on their genitalia ("That's it?" Julien asks), after which they attempt an abortive first kiss. (If only...). In a perhaps not unrelated development, Julien's beloved, terminally ill mother dies later that day. When Sophie shows up at the hospital, bearing flowers, Julien rejects her, thus revealing the characters' MO. The rest of the story is a 20-year odyssey of dares and counterdares, come-ons and put-downs. Back and forth the tin box goes, in a long baseline rally of increasingly cruel and spiteful rejections.

The film's biggest weakness is that it fails to develop the reasons for Julien and Sophie's inability to love each other. We're often left to our own devices, but not in a good way. For example, Julien has some Oedipal issues and Sophie has some self-esteem issues. Less sympathetically, they also seem to suffer from the pride and prejudice difficulties that thwarted Jane Austen's Elizabeth and Darcy for several hundred pages: Julien hails from a properly French and financially secure family, while Sophie lives in a slummy housing project with her vaguely constituted Polish family. (Although this film is breezily unconcerned with plot plausibility, it is just a bit much when Julien discovers Sophie's straightened circumstances a mere 10 years into their relationship.)

But this bitter brew still goes down like the frothy comedy it appears to be. Samuell's zippy direction is one reason. Another is the score, which features several versions of Edith Piaf's old standby, "Ma Vie en Rose." (There's a Satchmo version in a key late scene, and there's also a woozy, Eurodisco take that I can't get out of my head.) The cast, too, helps sell this story. As eight year olds, Julien and Sophie are totally off their Ritalin, and as the adult Sophie, Marion Cotillard (last seen as Billy Crudup's wife in Big Fish) effaces her beauty with an angry, defensive slouch. Although Guillaume Canet, as the adult Julien, looks alarmingly like Patrick Dempsey, his white bread good looks suit his character's sense of entitlement perfectly.

In most romantic comedies, the lovers are battling with bons mots and forgivable transgressions against social decorum. In this film, some of the cruelties are truly cruel, so much so that viewers may find themselves wishing a pox upon the both of them. But then, amour fou is amour fou, and if we're with the pair of them early on--as I was--then we'll want to see this bitter battle royale to its logical conclusion.

There are, in fact, two endings: the real one and the fake one. Although it's tempting to write the dual endings off as an annoying cop-out, they're also more or less the same--which may well be the point. EndBlock

  • Can unlikable characters carry a knockabout romantic comedy?

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