by Ray Pride

Child's Play might not be the best name for a dark romantic comedy. Unless it's Chucky you love. French writer-director Yann Samuell's lush and mean Love Me If You Dare was changed for American release from Jeux des Enfants, or Child's Play, to avoid association with a certain small and murderous doll, yet there's more than enough mischief on screen to make either title ironic.

Samuell's debut film, which opens at the Met on Friday, July 23, wants to explore what happens when the (platonic) couple that's just right for each other stay apart for decades, yet egg each other on in increasingly torturous ways. The movie's most lasting theme seems to be, what gives when you don't give fate its due?

Love Me If You Dare is narrated by Julien, who, as a little boy in a Parisian grade school, defends Polish & eacute;migr & eacute; Sophie from the mean little xenophobes at their school. Their bond grows to the point of near-inseparability. But there's a kind of sociopathic dimension to their connection, as well, as they dare each other to greater and greater antisocial acts (swearing during a vocabulary test; demolishing a wedding cake).

As the not-quite-grown-ups they blossom into, they're played by handsome Guillaume Canet and lovely Marion Cotilard (seen briefly in Big Fish as Billy Crudup's Gallic bride). They look good together, and their anxious performances ooze desperate romanticism. But increasingly sexual mischief is all they truly share, practically guaranteeing that neither of them will ever have a successful (or healthy) relationship. Refuse the dare? No more friendship.

It's a fascinating movie: To some, it may just be a nasty little train wreck. Love Me shares some of the convulsive, propulsive visual imagination of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie --and Cotilard's resemblance to the saucer-eyed Audrey Tautou only reinforces the inevitable comparisons.

But Jeunet has said that Amelie came out of his years of collaborating with Marc Caro on brackish, dank masterpieces like The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen. For years, he said, he made lists and scribbled notes about every small thing he noticed that made him happy.

Love Me If You Dare isn't about happiness. It's about resisting it, refusing it, dynamiting it. And Samuell's implausible obsessives, propelled by a rocketing camera and plopped down in locations that open out like candy-colored pages from a lush fantasy novel, is just as insistent as Jeunet's: Look at me, see what I see.

It's Amelie gone Brothers Grimm, with a stone in its pocket and meanness in its heart. The career animator and illustrator -- Samuell did drawings for a French edition of The Lord of the Rings -- is onto his own edition of perverse joy. There's a relentlessness to Samuell's eagerness to please that both startles and grates, like a lover who lives as a relentless supplicant, who oozes too-muchness -- a gift, an insight, an aspirin, a gaze, here's flattery, my hand, flowers, "do you want a drink," "I like your sweater." There's also a pained, poignant recurrence of I-love-you/I-hate-you behavior. If you're not caught up in the duo's fever, you might begin to wonder whether it's you or it's the movie wanting a moment's aloneness, a breath's length of not being perceived.

There's something bracing, even refreshing, about the stretching of boundaries in romances and in real-life romance. (The courting behavior in most classic American screwball comedies, for example, would almost invariably invite accusations of stalking in the 21st century.) Hilary Duff would not survive five minutes of this frenetic cesspool of desire. The cheek-burning sensations of humiliation that can come with desire are anathema to the American studio system's squeaky-clean idea of post-adolescent love.

The swooning romanticism and doomed wistfulness of the late Francois Truffaut's movies come into mind at the movie's most heightened moments, the director whose life and work could be encapsulated in the name of a single one of his features, The Man Who Loved Women.

Love begets love, yes, but as true as a pop lyric, love kills, too. The ending is ambiguous, but a short, sharp shock as well.

Publication date: 07/15/04

Vandal Summer Cinema Series

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