CANNES 2001 REVIEW: Natural Born Killer; Casetti Jolts in Kahn's "Succo"
by Patrick Z. McGavin
(indieWIRE/05.17.01) — The feral, magnetic Italian actor Stefano Cassetti is such a jolting presence as the title protagonist of French director Cedric Kahn‘s “Roberto Succo” that the widescreen frame appears nearly unsuitable trying to contain him. It is a gripping, compulsively attractive performance. Unfortunately, Kahn proves incapable of matching the exhilaration and excitement of the movie’s opening half.
Before it turns repetitive and slack, the movie has an electric verve and delirious edge. In its descriptive power and vital feel of place and time, the movie has an acute sense of the dangerous and mercurial. This gifted young filmmaker (“L’Ennui“) never sensationalizes his material, never cheapens the psychological realism for need of sympathy or understanding. In dramatizing the true story of the notorious criminal who terrorized the South of France with his brazen robberies, murders and rapes, Kahn frames the movie as the anarchist as criminal, outlaw as madman. He also contributes a powerful sexual component with the young girl Succo becomes infatuated with.
The movie opens with the discovery of two badly decayed corpses and advances five years, to the mid-’80s, where the lean, attractive Succo — operating under the alias Kurt — entrances 16-year-old Lea (Isild Le Besco) with his bravado, confident style and physical daring during her summer vacation in the South of France. In tracing their relationship, rooted in Succo’s innate understanding of the teen’s needs, Kahn draws on the powerful romantic imagery of the cinema — from “Gun Crazy” to “Breathless.” Meanwhile, Lea’s growing detachment blinds her to seeing “Kurt” as a psychopath. In these sections, the tone feels alternately tense, foreboding, and unnerving.
The young lovers maintain their relationship for nearly a year with Succo making repeated trips to the Savoy Mountains where Lea lives. Succo cultivates his opposite identity as a criminal with a dangerous, unsettling perfection. He moves with a sadistic speed and efficiency. The movie achieves its most lyrical, frightening moments in the velvet dark night sequences of terror, breakdown and abandon. As the crimes stockpile (car jackings, murder, robbery), Kahn introduces a greater emotional sensation of dread and impotence — the feeling of terror and disruption experienced by his victims, and the sense of inadequacy of the police whom Succo brilliantly evades. But with Lea’s disappearance from the film at the middle and when Succo confesses to murdering his parents and escaping from an Italian mental institution, the movie becomes less innovative and imaginative.
With set pieces such as a scene of street fighting involving Succo and the police and another involving a terrifying escape at the Swiss border, “Roberto Succo” evokes an effective, disorienting sense of movement and escape, pursuit and entrapment. Paradoxically, Kahn’s control of the material turns less distinctive, and the romantic abandon and terrifying individualism is lost amid the repetition. The first half is also very effective in establishing empathy for the victims (in particular, a disappeared woman who exists later only in photographs).
The shift from the psychological to the physical dissipates the movie’s complicated point of view. The most terrifying notion of “Roberto Succo,” frustratingly unacknowledged, is the fact that he exists as a dangerous projection of the id. Equally unsettling, he materializes with the freedom, guile and tenacity of an implacable monster. Basing his script on a book by journalist Pascale Froment, Kahn denies most psychological motivation to Succo, freeing the remarkable Cassetti his considerable resources to construct a frightening portrait. The result is a work solid, though imperfect, exciting though finally too conventional for the intensity of ambition and talent of artists such as Kahn and Cassetti.