Bright Lights Film Journal

The Nightmare in the Fairy Tale: Francois Ozon’s <em>Criminal Lovers</em> (1999)

A modern-day Hansel and Gretel take on love, sex, and death with rapturous results

A recent selection at the 24th San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, François Ozon’s latest film, Criminal Lovers (Les Amants Criminels), is a textured manipulation of dreams and memory. Ozon has crafted a work of many layers: from the narrative flashback structure of the story to the subtext, the film yields many possibilities for making meaning.

Alice (Natacha Regnier) is a teenage girl consumed by her competing passions to kill and to consummate her lust for the young boxer Said (Salim Kechiouche). The film opens with a tantalizing game of teasing foreplay: Alice has her young boyfriend Luc (Jeremie Renier) blindfolded on the bed as she narrates for him what she is doing. When she says she is naked, she is in fact only partially undressed. In his submissive innocence, Luc believes her every word. Her ruse reveals in part her twisted character: she is teetering on the edge of reality and constantly playing with its parameters. Ironically, Luc is not turned on by her vamping, but is still somehow caught up in the web of her intrigues.

In short order, Alice and Luc conspire to do away with Said. He is an athlete, a boxer who has been seriously flirting with Alice, much to her confused pleasure and chagrin. She reciprocates by flirting back while, at the same time, pushing him away. At this early stage in the film, we know little else outside of her superficial attraction for him. In a particularly bloody piece of cinema, Alice and Luc stab Said to death. Spent and shaken but somehow satisfied, Alice with Luc’s help begins to clean the blood-splattered tiles and floor of the shower room.

From this point on, Criminal Lovers descends even further into the realm of layered fairy tale. Like juvenile delinquent versions of Hansel and Gretel, the two fugitives drag Said’s body into the woods to bury it. But unknown to them, they are being watched. Attempting to find their way out of the forest, they become hopelessly muddled. Starving, Luc and Alice break into a seemingly deserted cabin in the thick of the remote forest. While stealing some bread, a grizzly older man pounces on them, forcing them into the cellar and locking the door behind them. He is the ogre of this fairy tale, a dirt-encrusted loner who inhabits this part of the wood and calls this cabin his solitary home.

The relationship that emerges between young Luc and the ogre is complex: Luc is in the tentative stages of discovering his homosexuality and this boorish older man is at once contemptuous of him and attracted to his innocence. While keeping Alice imprisoned in the cellar, he allows Luc to ascend into this world of grimy pots and pans where newly slain rabbits hang on overhead hooks, awaiting the inevitable skinning. He forces the young man to bathe him while he stands magisterially in a dirty metal wash tub, a hirsute distrust in his posture. In this desperate den, Luc begins his apprenticeship and sexual awakening; the impossible climax becomes possible, attainable, even enjoyable.

Ozon deftly juxtaposes scenes of uncommon intimacy and brutality with flashbacks as Alice recalls what led to her murderous impulse and the desire to actualize this wayward fancy. Natacha Regnier is formidable in her portrayal of Alice: she never ventures into a cartoonish conception of evil or emotes garishly. Her descent into madness is restrained, a process to behold with equal parts horror and curiosity. She remains curious about her own compulsions to kill, to have sex, to toy with Luc’s sexuality. Judging by her euphoric response to committing murder, Alice is unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. She obliges her basest impulses with little regard for consequence.

Jeremie Renier’s Luc is a willing dupe in Alice’s wicked obsession with murder. His acting is understated in his portrayal of sexual confusion and shame. Ozon’s direction lets the dramatic conflict emerge through his actors. By allowing them enough room to truly inhabit these characters, he manages to create a wonderfully complete portrait of innocence, sexuality, and deceit. Impulses to make love become confused with impulses to control and to kill in this dreamscape. The real accomplishment here is that it all seems eerily real and plausible, even as it’s fantastical. Ozon has succeeded in creating the stuff of nightmares.