TORONTO '99 REVIEW: Ozon's "Criminal Lovers": A Brutally Chilling Experience
by Stephen Garrett
In a grand return to form after somewhat stumbling with his disappointing feature debut "Sitcom," François Ozon's sophomore effort "Criminal Lovers" transposes Grimm's "Hansel and Gretel" fairy tale to a modern setting, preserving the elements of torture and cannibalism in the already gruesome children's story and complementing it with dollops of sexual anxiety and homicidal lust. A truly haunting style restores the reputation Ozon masterfully established with his many shorts, including the whimsical and sad "A Summer Dress" and his brilliant hour-long suspenser "See the Sea." While not without its faults, "Lovers," ravishingly photographed and conceived, has undeniably arresting moments of cinematic poetry that reaffirm Ozon as one of the most promising and original talents currently working in France.
Still discovering her budding sexuality and the ways in which it can control and bewitch men, teenager Alice (Natacha Regnier) decides on a whim that her handsome classmate Said (Salim Kechiouche) is not only a worthy target of seduction but also of murder. Naive friend Luc (Jeremy Renier), smitten with Alice already, becomes the unwitting accomplice when Alice showers him with affection and in confidence lies to him about how Said and his friends had raped her, convincing him that killing Said would be morally justified and the ultimate expression of his love for her.
The pair stab Said to death, then wrap up his body and drive far out to the country to bury the corpse in the middle of an isolated forest. But after finishing Said's grave, they discover that their tracks have been covered up, leaving them hopelessly lost in the middle of nowhere. Hungry and isolated, Luc and Alice stumble across a one-room house where a lone woodsman lives; and while he is supposedly away hunting, they break into the home to eat his food, only to be caught red-handed by the rifle-toting woodsman. The menacing man throws both teens in his rat-infested cellar and locks the trap door in his floor which serves as their only exit; and down in their prison they discover the freshly-interred body of Said, freshly dug up by the woodsman.
Knowing that the pair are murderers, the woodsman tells them that he plans to kill both and eat their flesh; and he brings Luc up from the cellar to force-feed him meat, enjoying his boys fat and plump while preferring to have his girls thin and bony. He also makes Luc into his own personal slave, making the teen bathe and dry the woodsman's naked body and making it implicitly known that he wants to have sex with Luc. Alice whispers to Luc that the only way they will escape is if he seduces the woodsman, and that he must go along with the woodsman's physical advances if they want to survive. Repulsed by their ogreish captor and perplexed by Alice's hot flashes of love and hate, and already confused by his inability to get an erection the one time he and Alice tried to have sex, the virginal Luc suddenly finds himself completely distraught in the midst of such dizzying sex and violence and tries to salvage any sense of a moral compass to lead him out alive.
Masterfully conceived at times, the film does fall victim to its tendency of creating situations and relationships that are not entirely convincing, relying on its fairy-tale conceit to patch dramatic gaps instead of honestly earning the extreme motivations of his characters with more reflection and insight into their nature. Regardless, the staging of many scenes and shots are exquisitely realized on film, cinematic epiphanies that are almost surreal in their shape and form (one highlight is a moment in which the nude young pair make love on the rocks by a river and, in a warped Disney-fied touch, attract all the forest's creatures, from birds to deer and even a hedgehog, to turn their head and watch). Dark and deliciously inventive, "Criminal Lovers" ultimately makes for a brutally chilling experience.