Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger ponders the age-old question: If a character is supposed to be irritating, and he is, does that make the movie good?
Are you game?
Before I set in, a note of warning is in order. Love Me if You Dare is the kind of film that has much more impact if you don't know what is coming. Though I will avoid major spoilers of plot, merely knowing what kind of film it is will lessen Love Me if You Dare's emotional effect—and I'm about to tell you what kind of film it is.
The obvious temptation is to compare Jeux d'enfants (Love Me if You Dare) to Amélie. Both films are French comedy-dramas, where the comedy is unsettling and the drama is tinged with an outsider fantasy element. Both films feature quirky heroines with brunette hair and indomitable spirits, and each is rendered in brightly colored, kinetic surrealism. On the surface, the two have strong stylistic similarities.
But treating Love Me if You Dare as a relative of Amélie is a grave mistake, one that will push Love Me if You Dare's purposive unpleasantness into irredeemability. If you saddle yourself with false notions that Love Me if You Dare is somehow upbeat, whimsical, or uplifting, you will be even more disappointed than you're supposed to be.
A much better analogy is to compare Love Me if You Dare to Fight Club. Love Me if You Dare shares Fight Club's dehumanized aesthetic and its focus on compelling, yet abhorrent, characters. Both films impart a palpable feeling of sleazy complicity in their viewers, who somehow consent to the deplorable actions through their own action of watching the film. These two films extend ludicrous premises that morph into crimes against humanity, and the films stay their horrific courses with brutal disregard for the viewer's comfort. Like Fight Club, Love Me if You Dare creates a fascist regime via folie à deux, which is as compelling as it is difficult to watch.
The difference is that Fight Club wears its despondence prominently, giving the viewer every sign that the ride will be grim. Love Me if You Dare dresses its fatalism as a romantic comedy. This has the dual effect of enhancing the juxtaposition between theme and tone while misleading the viewers just enough to alienate them—or captivate them.
Facts of the Case
Julien Jeanvier (Guillaume Canet, The Beach, and Thibault Verhaeghe) is an incorrigible child who lives with his distraught father (Gérard Watkins, The Wolf of the West Coast) and a mother dying of cancer (Emmanuelle Grönvold). Though he isn't on a path to a life of petty crime, we get the sense that Julien is smart, mischievous, and exasperating. Only his mother seems to have the faculties to deal with him.
That all changes one day when Julien walks out his front door and spies Sophie Kowalski (Marion Cotillard, Big Fish, and Joséphine Lebas-Joly, À l'abri des regards indiscrets). Sophie is being cruelly taunted by her French schoolmates for being Polish. The kids board the bus, leaving her standing in the street amid a jumble of her things. Touched by a mixture of pity and attraction, Julien gives Sophie his prized merry-go-round tin. He immediately regrets the gift, and Sophie goads him into a wild dare if he wants to get it back.
From those humble beginnings the game is born. Julien provokes Sophie, Sophie provokes Julien in an unending cycle of outrageous behavior. Sophie and Julien pour all of their hyperactive energy and philosophical detachment into the escalating dares. Eventually, college and adulthood arrive to interrupt the game. But will Julien be able to turn away from it?
Though it has been over a week since I saw the film, Love Me if You Dare is still lurking in the back of my mind like a shadow.
Watching this film was not a pleasant experience. In fact, I became incensed at the characters, frustrated by their utter lack of compassion. In the back of my mind I knew it was a movie, a fabrication intended to provoke the very outrage I was displaying. Yet I responded as though it were real, with Julien and Sophie right there in my living room misbehaving audaciously.
That is the central paradox surrounding Love Me if You Dare. It is a movie about a spiteful game, and the movie itself is a spiteful game. Director Yann Samuell extends a powerful premise. He then carries it forward with a conviction that bulldozes into fatalism. In an era when even the hardest films can cave in to marketing or peer pressure, relenting in their chosen paths, it is invigorating to behold a film that goes all the way to the bitter end. Yet this very admiration turns sharply inward as the hammer blows keep falling. So we must ask ourselves whether our respect for Samuell's unflinching devotion to an emotionally obscene premise outweighs our rabid loathing of the characters.
Samuell's script, co-written with Jacky Cukier, depends on the viewer's compassion to shock. He shows us the beauty of the people in Julien and Sophie's life, and then shows us the effects of their uncaring dares on those same people. As the years wear on, their families and friends become wretched with frustration. But still the pair does not cease their cruelties, taking people beyond the snapping point.
At some point during the movie, it will dawn on you that the perky trappings and upbeat colors belie a cold truth about two narcissists bound together in shared thrill seeking. You may resent the ruse and wonder why you're still watching. Or you may have a high tolerance for cinematic cruelty and appreciate the bitter ironies captured so delicately by this film. I want to be perfectly clear on this point, because individual responses to films vary: Love Me if You Dare is a good film that synthesizes many inspirations into a fresh tale. It captures the cruel heart of Wuthering Heights and the flair of Amélie, as well as the horrific-attractive patina of Fight Club. What emerges is a strong film that some people will find rewarding as is. However, I suspect that most people will have to struggle to come to terms with Love Me if You Dare.
If you do endure all the way through the pair's manipulations of each other and the world at large, you'll come to an ending that is even more dark and absurd than the rest of the film. In this final desperate moment, we learn some emotional truths about Sophie and Julien that actually explain some of their prior behavior. It is the kind of symbol that can only thrive in cinema. This is the kind of ending that takes no prisoners and leaves a lasting impression.
The enthusiasm of the actors for their roles comes through clearly. Cukier and Samuell have written meaty roles with levels upon levels of emotional response, and the cast embraced the challenge. We spend a lot of time with both the young duo and the adult duo, and they are seamlessly integrated. Joséphine Lebas-Joly gives young Sophie a winsome edge that blossoms into Marion Cotillard's disaffected adulthood. Cotillard is narcotically "come hither" while her snub-nosed belligerence slaps us in the face. For his part, Guillaume Canet's smug Julien is the perfect shark in a suit, outwardly embracing the life that society extends him while harboring a secret life in his heart. The characters all come to life, from the father and young Julien to the peripheral mates and teachers, which is a testament to the abilities of the cast and their ability to react to each other.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Aside from the obvious, all is not well in the Love Me if You Dare circus.
This is a first film, and signs are evident. The most noticeable is the aforementioned kinetic surrealism, which manifests itself through roller-coaster camerawork, whimsical merry-go-round sets, dream flights through brightly colored plywood clouds, and other fantastic touches. I've interpreted this as a deliberately misleading juxtaposition of tone and meaning, a technique that highlights the cruelty of the film's core. However, these vignettes call way too much attention to themselves, overstepping their intended aim. You could also argue that they are entirely frivolous elements of flair that add nothing to the film. Aside from that argument, it is a really bad idea to combine static horizontal subtitles with wildly zooming point-of-view camera movement. The viewer may become carsick just reading the subtitles.
The transfer for Love Me if You Dare is not particularly inspiring. It is dark and dingy, with noticeable grain and oversaturated colors. Detail was muddled, and there were occasional specks and flecks in the print. The color balance is out of whack.
The technical aspects of the soundtrack are slightly better. The surrounds keep us involved in the action, and dialogue is clear. I noticed pronounced brassiness in some of the musical numbers, and the subwoofer lacked oomph in scenes where I thought it should kick in harder. My real gripe is with the actual soundtrack. The songs are poorly integrated and feel overbearing to boot.
No extras? When a film is as divisive and emotionally manipulative as Love Me if You Dare, and when the actors pour obvious enthusiasm into the project, it is nice to hear about it from the people who made it.
When the whirlwind ceased, I found that Love Me if You Dare was one of the most ardently romantic movies I'd ever seen—but in a backhanded way. I felt passionate dislike for this pair of wolverines. They had wrought their havoc and curled up next to each other in a feral embrace, ready to hibernate together forever and the world be damned. In response, I felt unreasonably protective of my own relationship. I wanted to sweep my wife into my arms and distance myself from the scandalous emotions spawned by this movie. It was powerfully affecting. Most movies are not, to be perfectly honest.
Given their irreconcilable crimes against friendship, love, and family, the court sentences Julien and Sophie to shared entombment, where they are to live out the rest of their natural lives.
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