There are few thespians more capable of playing first-class bitches than Kristin Scott Thomas. Most good actors are considerate enough to open up windows into their souls, but Thomas’s eyes are haughty saucers that take in a room in the way that a professional assassin snaps a neck. It isn’t especially difficult to imagine Thomas’s blue orbs popping out of her head, perhaps running at you with plans for a murder weapon.
So it’s no surprise that Love Crime‘s best moments are when Thomas appears on screen as the appropriately named corporate executive Christine (did co-writer/director Alain Corneau have any other actress in mind?). Christine plucks ideas from her underlings without credit, humiliates her coworkers at a party by playing security camera videos that reveal their private emotional moments, and digs in the heel after a nasty betrayal by telling her opponent how easy it was to fool her. In other words, Christine is a woman you never want to cross, the kind of chilling villain that keeps me coming back to French cinema. I should probably confess that I experienced great pleasure in seeing Christine order an associate to clean up two to three months of financial chicanery in a mere week and that I further enjoyed the way that many of the women in this film were surrounded by weak and easily crushed men. When it comes to corporate intrigue, the truest films of this type are decent enough to give us jackals who go for the jugular. It certainly wasn’t a surprise to learn that Christine’s previous assistant had cracked.
Against such a compelling heavy, how then can Ludivine Sagnier compete? Sagnier, playing Christine’s assistant Isabelle, is a striking blonde who looks especially good running on a treadmill. (We’re told in the film’s early moments that Isabelle runs because it “blanks everything out.” I don’t believe this is why most people run, but it does explain why Isabelle would put up with Christine for so long.) But in this film, Sagnier doesn’t have the gravitas or the complexity to match Thomas. That’s somewhat surprising, given the way Sagnier held her own with Charlotte Rampling in Swimming Pool. When Isabelle pops pills as the fissures start forming and she confronts Christine over a threatening email, we can’t really speculate on her character or relate to her because of Corneau’s melodramatic direction, which works well in other places but, in Sagnier’s case, relies too much on the shattered static look and a doelike gaze. I mean, if Sagnier is such a naif, how then did she make it this far in the company? For that matter, why does the company include so many agreeable Americans saying things like “Thanks to you, our expectations were shot through the roof” and giving away jobs and trips to Cairo with the profligacy one expects from a pediatrician dispensing lollipops after an appointment? (To be fair, I actually enjoyed these cheeseball Yanks, who represent a fairly ridiculous fiction in a post-2008 economy. It’s amusingly easy for various characters to screw the company out of millions. On the other hand, this skewered logic does cause one to see gaping holes in the plot.)
Given that Love Crime relies on an intricate ruse and boardroom perseverance to hold our interest, this failure to give Sagnier much more than an apparent victimhood quality needlessly simplifies an otherwise entertaining thriller. It’s worth pointing out that mysteries which include a police investigation really need to make sure that they are ten steps ahead of the audience. Because by inviting the audience into vicarious inquiry, the audience is also encouraged to poke around. And if the audience feels smugly superior to the police, catching on to certain details well before they do, it invalidates the criminal horror, reducing it to comedy or camp. That’s perfectly fine. Murder and bumbling detectives can be very funny. But since Corneau spends so much time building up to the crime, I’m thinking that he wanted us to take the act seriously.
On the other hand, modest kitsch may have also been Corneau’s intent. If the film didn’t spend so much time trying to be smart, it may have found more confidence in its exuberance. There’s one amusing moment in front of a movie theater when Isabelle offers candy to everybody, suggesting a whimsical direction perhaps more natural for Corneau. I also liked the silly paranoia contained within the film’s finale, which suggests that, no matter where you rest on the corporate totem pole, there’s always someone out to get you.
Ultimately, I enjoyed Love Crime, but it was clear to me that it could have been something more than a conventional thriller. On the way out of the screening room, I overheard two people calling the film “cute,” a modifier better assigned to an effervescent romantic comedy. Why couldn’t this film have been more dangerous?