GOADING, GOADING, GONE

Movie: Love Me If You Dare

Our Rating: 2.50

One day, we'll all look back on 2003 as a strange, shining moment in time when it was momentarily OK to like the French. They stood up to Dubya's imperialism and bravely took the flak for it, making a lot of us wonder if we'd been wrong in using them as our personal punching bags since we were old enough to talk. Then they started ripping the scarves off their Muslim women, and it was suddenly acceptable to pull out the Jerry Lewis jokes all over again.

As an exemplar of froggy-bashing redux, we have Love Me If You Dare, a romantic dark comedy that'll have you scratching your head anew at what this odd race considers entertainment. Careening from whimsy to misery like Amélie on depressants, the movie wallows in that peculiarly Franch cynicism that makes it all but impossible to distinguish between people in love and people in hate. But what does it matter, as long as you're thin, good-looking and know a lot about table wines?

To be totally accurate, only one of our two star-crossed protagonists is of the Gallic persuasion. That's Julien, who when we meet him is an adorable tot suffering the trial of a fatally ill mother. Something in Julien responds to the stony implacability of classmate Sophie (Joséphine Labas-Joly), who endures constant abuse from her peers due to her being Polish. (That's an open door to a whole other set of racist jokes, but I'll pass, thanks.) Soon, the two disaffected kids are swept up in a shared pastime they call "the Game" – not the title pursuit of the 1997 Michael Douglas thriller, but close enough. This game is a series of dares that compel the players to defy authority in increasingly brazen ways, all to secure temporary ownership of a toy carousel as a prize. Memorable dares include a burst of classroom profanity and urinating in the office of the school principal – while he's present. It's a little unsettling to realize that the movie expects us to consider these pint-sized sociopaths endearing, but when you think about it, they're only peeing on other French people, so let them have their fun.

The movie then races ahead to meet Julien and Sophie as young adults, running straight into a serious casting error as it does so. Marion Cotillard makes a perfectly respectable grown-up successor to Labas-Joly's 8-year-old Sophie, but replacing young heartbreaker Thibault Verhaeghe with the sheepish-looking Guillaume Canet gives the impression that puberty has somehow transformed Julien into Rob Morrow. Sophie, nonetheless, has developed a seriously non-Platonic crush on him; his inability to reciprocate triggers an entirely new and sadistic set of dares, in which the comrades-at-odds go about wrecking each other's lives with the cruel efficiency that only people who are made for each other can muster.

This adult psychodrama is the most enjoyable portion of the film, permitting us to chortle over the mutual destruction of characters who, cancer-ridden mothers or no, we're way past the point of finding likable. But then director/co-writer Yann Samuell has to go all sentimental on us, expecting us to pine for these miserable bastards to ultimately get together. Like we care. The movie's emotional indecisiveness is broadcast in a flat-out-bizarre framing sequence that refuses to specify if Julien and Sophie's fractured courtship will lead to tragedy or bliss. The answer is left ambiguous until the last second, in what looks like a craven attempt to make the film appeal to any viewer of any predilection.

Sean Hannity, this is your cue to make a crack about appeasement. Don't blow it.

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