Cracks, based on the 2006 novel by Sheila Kohler, set at a girls’ boarding school in the English countryside in 1934. The film — which opened in New York on 18 March and will be available on demand starting 23 March — follows the members of the academy’s diving team. Enthralled by their seductive, outwardly adventurous instructor Miss G (Eva Green), the girls live under the thumb of their captain Di (Juno Temple). The arrival of Fiamma (María Valverde), a poised and lovely Spanish aristocrat, upsets the team’s hierarchy, as Miss G develops a dangerous, unrequited attachment to the girl.

First-time director Jordan Scott (daughter of Ridley, who is one of this film’s producers) aims for the unsettling eeriness of Picnic at Hanging Rock as well as the perversity of Repulsion, but her film lacks the formal daring required to achieve them. That said, there are a number of Cracks gets right, including Temple’s riveting performance. When the frizzy-haired Di feels overthrown for the prettier and worldlier Fiamma, she turns ever watchful, monitoring Miss G’s interactions with Fiamma in a state of high alert. Jealousy, writes psychoanalyst Marcianne Blévis, is a strangely “thrilling malady,” providing a nearly addictive “excitement [the sufferer] both seeks and dreads.” Di embodies both sides of this coin, fearful and heartbroken, her rage both alarming and comprehensible.

Even as all the members of the diving team are capable of terrible meanness, the film encourages our understanding… to a point. While one of their backgrounds is quite as “exotic” as Fiamma’s, all the girls (Miss G too) feel exiled from their families. Only a couple of them receive letters or packages from home, and one still cries in her sleep for her mother. Because they feel unloved, the film suggests, they’re susceptible to the charms of Miss G, and feel unnerved by her threatened departure. In turn, she notices them, delights in them, and argues with conviction that they are capable of achieving any goal they set for themselves.

Miss G certainly cuts a glamorous figure, with her bohemian lair, stylish clothes, and one-of-a-kind headwear. And we can appreciate the girls’ enchantment by her raspy voice fiery blue-green eyes. Though we see immediately that Miss G’s motives are impure — she manipulates the girls’ feelings to feed her own ego — and so anticipate that her desire for Fiamma will be calamitous, it’s still not clear why this dynamic, intellectually curious, and ravishingly beautiful woman is such a mess. A trip into town makes her a wreck, prompting the sneers and giggles of schoolboys. But why? Is she agoraphobic? Worse, the film relies too much on the hallmarks of cinematic derangement: as Miss G becomes more unstable, her eyes dart to and fro, her hair becomes a tangle, and her mascara gets progressively smudged. The characterization is facile and unconvincing.

In other instances too, the film depends on obvious signs to indicate that terrible developments are afoot, like ominous dark shadows darting across the hillside or thunder roiling in the distance. That said, there is no denying that it captures the Irish countryside to wondrous effect: the verdant hills, crumbling grottos, and glimmering, sun-dappled lakes are dazzling. The arrangement of colorfully dressed actresses within the frame can also be quite painterly.

Such visual artistry alludes to Di’s sensibility. When preparing for a midnight revel, the girls dress up in costumes. A mustachioed Di becomes absorbed in the task of making up Fiamma, heavily lining her eyes à la Cleopatra and painting her full lips in striking red. Scenes like this have appeared in films before (Claire’s transformation of Allison in The Breakfast Club or more recently, Tess’ makeover of Ali in Burlesque), and they are typically used to demonstrate sisterly or motherly tenderness. But Scott is after something arguably more interesting. Di utterly transforms Fiamma’s flawless face, as it is revealed to be the perfect canvas.

Before this moment, it isn’t apparent why Miss G is so fixated by Fiamma. Here we see that the girl’s plain beauty renders her the ideal object onto which to project any fantasy. And though the film’s conclusion is strangely anti-climactic, it does leave viewers wondering if Di and the other divers will learn to sublimate their passions instead of being consumed by them like Miss G. Their obsessions demonstrate a fierce focus and, however twisted, remarkable imagination.

RATING 5 / 10