To call Francois Ozon’s Criminal Lovers (Les Amants Criminels) disturbing would be an understatement. As would calling it challenging, visceral, horrific, even, at times, funny. But one thing Criminal Lovers is not, is romantic. Instead, its probing of troubled adolescent sexuality challenges quaint notions of romantic love and death, reframing them on the level of Greek tragedy or noir thriller. Here, Thanatos and Eros struggle for mastery, much like they did in de Sade and von Sacher-Masoch’s violent, fantastical sex games. However, Ozon exploits their sadomasochistic models and psychotic codependency without resorting to either campy S&M fetishism (whips and leather? C’mon) or the excessive stupidity of Mr. Obvious’ Natural Born Killers. Bonds are formed and broken through passive-aggressive power relations master and servant roles beginning with the twisted union of cold, seductive Alice (Natacha Regnier) and weak-willed Luc (Jeremie Renier), two suburban teens whose boredom and confusion lead them down a dark path to murder, cannibalism, rape, and terror.
The two high schoolers plan and commit a vicious murder, but when they attempt to get away with it, they encounter something more horrible than even their morbid imaginations could conjure up. Alice sets the wheels spinning, roping her timid and sexually impotent boyfriend, Luc into her plot to kill a classmate, the suave, swaggering boxer Said, who asks Alice point blank whether she wants to fuck him or not. She seems flattered, not disgusted, with this approach, but plans Said’s death immediately afterwards. She tells Luc that Said and his gang raped, convincing him that Said deserves to be killed; and so, after watching Alice make out with Said in the shower, Luc brutally stabs the boxer to death while she looks on, apparently giddy with delight. After the murder, the couple staggers about, gasping in bloody horror and ecstasy.
In classic Hitchcockian form, Ozon subverts our expectations. (In an interview in the film’s press kit, Ozon quotes Hitchcock: “A murder must be filmed like a love scene and a love scene like a murder.”) Aesthetically, the murder is the sexiest scene in the movie, but in a way that recalls not Hitchcock so much as Fassbinder (particularly Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). Nothing is hidden from view. The death takes place in a space framed by the shower entrance through which the viewer watches the murder, as Luke had watched the shower seduction from the other room. Therefore, the horror and fascination of watching such an event is magnified by the feeling that one is standing in the next room. Like Fassbinder, Ozon uses this hidden, voyeuristic gaze, to provide the sensation of terrible, petrified, yet thrilling immediacy felt in slasher films. Later on, the murder scene is repeated in slow motion and in silence, reinforcing the brutal dynamism of the act and, as Ozon says in the same interview, to make you “feel again the pleasure of killing that Alice experienced.”
That pleasure quickly turns to anarchy and terror after the conspirators drive out to the woods to dispose of the body. Romantic conceptions of tranquil nature, and fairy tale images of a wild and supernatural forest, both shape Alice and Luc’s journey into the woods. Before Said’s funeral, the couple heads to the store to purchase a shovel, wandering around the supermarket like lost toddlers. In the press release, Ozon calls Hansel and Gretel his favorite fairy tale: it is inevitable that Alice and Luc will meet some kind of man-eating monster in the forest. They do so in the form of a gaunt, stone-faced woodsman (chillingly played by accomplished Serbian actor Miki Manojlovic). His cabin, with its promises food and shelter, attracts the hungry killers after their grueling work at gravedigging. When the woodsman returns from rabbit hunting, he discovers them and ultimately traps then in a dank, rat-infested cellar, where he has deposited Said’s corpse. There, he starves Alice and fattens Luc with freshly killed rabbit… and human flesh. Alice observes while the woodsman makes Luc his pet, placing him on a leash and sodomizing him (tenderly, which makes it all the more difficult to watch). Like Alice’s previous domination of Luc, the woodsman’s use of sexuality incorporates both pleasure and pain. But where Alice taunted and humiliated Luc into submission, the woodsman uses intimidation to control Luc, threatening him, in part by skinning a rabbit in front of him.
Like Hansel and Gretel, the poor little children escape: by this time, compared to the woodsman, they do seem precious and fragile. But there’s something else too: again on the run, Alice and Luc steal a moment in a serene sunlit gully and make hot, passionate love, surrounded by the friendly, watchful animals of an almost Disneyan forest. Their transformation from angsty teen killers to innocent wood nymphs is sweet, weird, and funny. But they are still murderers and fugitives, and the ultimate power-player the Law is on the prowl.
The movie makes it difficult to judge Alice and Luc, despite the horrific nature of their crime. They are not lovable kids. They are not even likable. But they are small and cute and alive, and like the woodsman’s rabbits, subject to the whims and appetites of the larger and more powerful. While philosophers, clergy, pundits, and various “experts” struggle to define and contain the problem of youth violence, the question of a “natural” or somehow “naive” violence the instinct to control, possess, and devour at any age is often overlooked. By revisiting the mist-shrouded, unpredictable, and morally nebulous world of the fairy tale, Francois Ozon touches the soft places deep down where childhood fears of dark, untamed nature dwell, buried under middle class rhetoric and suburban asphalt.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/criminal-lovers/