Criminal Lovers

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Criminal Lovers. Is that lovers who are criminals? Or people who love criminals? There’s no such ambiguity in the original French title of François Ozon’s 1999 shocker. Les amants criminels makes clear these are lovers who are criminals. No ambiguity at all, in a film shot through with it from start to finish.

In what looks like a French reworking of Natural Born Killers, but is in fact a reworking of the Hansel and Gretel fairytale, Ozon’s film opens with a pair of loved-up teenagers – the passive Luc (Jérémie Renier) and femme very fatale Alice (Natacha Régnier) – indulging in a bit of mild S&M. Sex, sex, sex seems to be the idea. She’s hot for him, he’s hot for her, though Luc, unlikely as it seems, is a virgin. Ozon cuts away to another place, where Saïd and Karim, two young Arab French guys, are discussing who they’re going to nail next, though their homo-erotic bantering suggests that the people they’d most like to nail is each other.

In short order (and without getting too spoilerish), someone is dead – at Luc’s hand but at Alice’s prompting – and this deadly but laughably dim duo are on the road, creating a mini crime wave en route, and heading to a forest to bury the body of the dead person.

Which is where they come in contact with a middle-aged man known only as “L’homme des bois” (Miki Manojlovic), the man of the woods, a semi-mythical tag for a semi-fairytale character, who captures the luckless pair, imprisons them in his cellar and starts eyeing up Luc as a possible erotic partner. Maybe Luc won’t be a virgin for too long. Maybe, in spite of his desperate protestations of undying love for Alice, he’s going to enjoy being violated more than he expects.

Ambiguity is rife in Criminal Lovers, but Ozon has something specific in his sights as well. Scene one: Luc and Alice indulge in erotic hi-jinks. Scene two: murder most bloody. Here’s sex, and here’s death, Ozon appears to be saying, his ugly juxtapositions stress-testing the usual creatives’ pairing of sex and death. Beyond the fact that one creates life and the other ends it, is there any valuable connection, or is the coupling glib?

Luc in bed with the man in the woods
Showtime for Luc and the “the man”

Fascinating though all this is, Criminal Lovers remains more a thought exercise than an engaging dramatic experience. Ozon keeps us slightly at a distance, not in the same way as Oliver Stone did in Natural Born Killers with his relentless aping of an advertising-driven consumer society, but by presenting everything as flat and matter of fact, right down to the one-note performances of Régnier as the sex-obsessed Alice and in particular Renier’s almost inert Luc. Ozon does not want us to like these characters, that’s clear, but we also don’t really get to know them, or the guy in the woods, or the French Arab guys, or in fact anyone at all.

The film debuted in 1999 and looked like something of an outlier at the time. Since then it’s been lumped together with other films of the era as part of the New French Extremity, a grungey rejection of many of the conventions of the talky bourgeois French drama in favour of more genre-driven fare. Ozon found himself in the company of auteurs like Gaspar Noé and Lucile Hadzihalilovic, Bruno Dumont, Pascal Laugiers, Claire Denis and Catherine Breillat and films like Martyrs, Switchblade Romance, Frontières, Trouble Every Day, In My Skin and Pola X. Body horror looms large in most of these, sex is usually something problematical and moments of unexpected outrageous violence often heave regularly into view. Organs and orgasms. As I write (2022), French film-maker Julia Ducournau seems the most obvious inheritor of the mantle, with films like Raw and Titane.

Which is another way of saying that there are moments in Criminal Lovers that are likely to make the more sensitive viewer queasy. Approach with fingers splayed over the eyes, or gripping the iron bedstead, as Luc does at one point. Ozon, a master of the tasteful, for all his protestations to the contrary, does not go all in, using suggestion where other directors might be overt. There’s a flashback moment where Alice handles a flick knife as if it were a penis… enough said.

Hansel and Gretel go into the woods, find a gingerbread house, are taken prisoner and finally break free, killing the witch as they do so. Criminal Lovers ticks most of the boxes, but not always in quite the way you’d expect and comes with its own critique of itself, a final, smouldering look by Luc into the camera. It’s hard to read, but “what the fuck was that all about?” might be getting close.

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© Steve Morrissey 2022

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