There was a minor kerfuffle during the Berlinale press conference for Benoît Jacquot’s “Eva” when a journalist asked star Isabelle Huppert how she achieved such a degree of eroticism in the film without getting nude. “You have a very bizarre idea of eroticism,” came the actress’ withering second-degree burn of a reply.
And, to Huppert’s credit, it was a ridiculous question. Ridiculous because French cinema has spent more than a century illustrating that T&A has precious little to do with screen sensuality, ridiculous because Huppert could make a Haneke movie feel erotic, and ridiculous because Jacquot’s overblown melodrama is a film about people who disguise themselves by how they dress.
A limp, sudsy adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s 1945 novel “Eve” (a potboiler that Joseph Losey once spun into a Jeanne Moreau vehicle of the same name), “Eva” begins with an engaging sequence that instantly sets the tone by subverting its own beauty. Sneering gigolo Bertrand Valade (Gaspard Ulliel, the overbearingly chiseled star of Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent”) arrives at the Paris apartment of an old gay writer, for whom he works as both an aide and an aspirational piece of ass.
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The client is far too frail to take full advantage of his plaything — his body no longer seems capable of pleasure — but perhaps having such a beautiful young stud at his beck and call allows him to enjoy the faint aftertaste of desire. Alas, he asks for more than his heart can handle, and the mere sight of Bertrand removing his shirt causes the Booker Prize–winning playwright to have a fatal coronary in the tub. The brief moment when Bertrand hesitates to call for help finds Jacquot at his best, his screenplay marvelously shading in all the small ways in which its protagonist is a soulless ghoul.
The biggest of all Bertrand’s flaws, of course, is that he’s a thieving piece of shit. He doesn’t think twice before stealing his late client’s newly finished script right off his desk, chucking the writer’s laptop into the Seine in order to hide the evidence. Cut to: the closing night of “Bertrand’s” hit new play (which, from our brief glimpse of its final scene, appears to be hilariously bad). Our plagiarist has transformed himself from a sex worker into a socialite, suddenly dressing like Darren Aronofsky and looking every inch the trendy artiste that he secretly isn’t. He has a legion of fans, a stunning blonde fiancée (Julia Roy), and an overeager agent (Richard Berry), but all of them keep asking him the same question: What’s he going to write next?
With guilt and anxiety compounding his natural unpleasantness, Bertrand heads for the snowy hills of Annecy, where he has an unexpected encounter with a tetchy older prostitute (Huppert, acting like she has nothing to hide and resents those who do for wasting her time). It isn’t long before Bertrand is visiting Eva on the regular, slavishly writing down everything she says as material for his next play, no matter how banal their conversations might be.
He’s as incurious as you might expect, and the scenes between these two characters are awkwardly pitched between the excitement of an imbecile exploring the taboo, and a working girl doing her best to tolerate another customer. Eva is no-nonsense, Bertrand is all nonsense — she is creating a fantasy in order to protect her truth, while he is exposing his truth in order to protect his fantasy — but there’s strangely little sense that Bertrand was once an escort himself. We’re never privy to any of the sex they have (we hardly see them touch), and the more that Eva treats Bertrand like a pesky reporter, the clearer it becomes that Bertrand’s only hope for telling a good story is to live it himself.
Alas, Jacquot eliminates any hope of that, as Bertrand soon becomes as tiresome for us as he’s always been for Eva. While Ulliel successfully conjures something of a “Talented Mr. Ripley” mystique, Huppert sees right through it; once we look at him through her eyes, there isn’t much left to see. Bertrand’s disguise is as flimsy and disposable as the wig that Eva wears on the job, but for him there’s nothing underneath. It’s such a chore to watch him confront the obvious fact of his lie that Jacquot eventually just ignores it altogether.
By the time we arrive at the thuddingly banal third act, the suspense of whether or not Bertrand will be able to write anything has vanished completely. From there, the film devolves into empty piques of delusional rage, each of the other characters discovering they’ve been swindled by a handsome man in a nice peacoat. Only Huppert remains on her feet, indomitable as ever. Her idea of eroticism is the only one the film has.
Moreover, “Eva” boasts little style beyond what its biggest star is able to bring to the table. Viewers hoping for more of the milquetoast elegance that Jacquot previously brought to the likes of “Farewell, My Queen” and “Diary of a Chambermaid” will be disappointed. Viewers hoping for something a little seedier — who are fooled by the Cinemax undertones of the film’s expectant first act — are in for a similarly rude awakening, as the movie hedges its bets between the gutter and the stars. For a film with so few secrets of its own to hide, “Eva” also offers little to see on the surface.
“Eva” premiered in Competition at the 2018 Berlin International Film Festival. it is currently seeking U.S. distribution.