Film Review: Ricky

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Berlin International Film Festival --  Competition
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BERLIN -- Further proof that the literary genre of magical realism always loses something in the flight from page to screen, "Ricky" is a bold, ambitious hybrid that only intermittently reaches the heights toward which it audaciously aims.

The latest adventurous effort from tireless French writer-director Francois Ozon ("Swimming Pool," 2007's "Angel") is a particularly tricky sell as the less audiences know about it beforehand the better. But the picture is sufficiently unusual and its big midpoint twist sufficiently bizarre that there's an outside chance of reasonable art house success among indulgent patrons seeking something out of the ordinary.

Ozon and co-scriptwriter Emmanuelle Bernheim have taken a brisk, fable-like story by Brit author Rose Tremain (itself half-inspired by a cult novel from seminal fantasy scribe Mervyn Peake) and, as well as transplanting the action from a U.S. trailer-park to a northern French housing-project, freely adapted, expanded and (inevitably) literalized it. "Ricky" is thus perhaps a not-so-distant Gallic cousin of "Benjamin Button."

Early stretches are soberly realistic, presenting the daily life of a working-class mother and daughter: Katie (Alexandra Lamy) works long shifts at a chemical factory, while 7-year-old moppet Lisa (rock solid newcomer Melusine Mayance) is precociously self-sufficient and solemn. Lisa's dad having long since disappeared, mom and kid have grown into a close-knit "team," but when Katie falls for rough-hewn charmer Paco (Sergi Lopez), the pair's domestic setup is irrevocably altered. Lisa's sense of exclusion doubles when the cherubic Ricky (Arthur Peyret) appears -- and deepens yet further when it becomes apparent what a "special" baby this is.

Despite the title, "Ricky" best makes sense if interpreted mainly from Lisa's POV -- like many children, she must quickly adapt to no longer being the sole center of attention and affection. Here, however, sibling rivalry takes on a whole new dimension. Whereas the first half has a Dardennes brothers vibe, what follows owes rather more to Messrs Cronenberg, Lynch, Burton and Gilliam, with a dash of Preston Sturges added for crucial satirical/comic measure.

It sounds like a rather messy recipe, and what a pity Ozon can't quite manage to sustain the necessary focus -- particularly in the last reel, when events become more a realization of Katie's maternal worries than of Lisa's juvenile insecurities. The plot's discombobulating gear-changes are marked more smoothly by Philippe Rombi's score, which coyly hints at "Rosemary's Baby" horrors early on before transitioning to Hitchcockian suspense-themes, then pastiching Spielberg-style uplift during the soaring, effects-heavy final act.

Production: Eurowide, Paris; Teodora, Rome; Foz, Paris
Cast: Alexandra Lamy, Melusine Mayance, Sergi Lopez, Arthur Peyret, Andre Wilms
Director: Francois Ozon
Screenwriters: Francois Ozon and Emmanuelle Bernheim, based on a short story by Rose Tremain
Producers: Claudie Ossard, Chris Bolzli
Co-producers: Cesare Petrillo, Valerie Razzini
Director of photography: Jeanne Lapoirie
Production designer: Philippe Delest
Music: Philippe Rombi
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Editor: Muriel Breton
Sales: Le Pacte, Paris
No rating, 90 minutes
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