'Mad Love' ('Fou d'amour'): Film Review

Courtesy of Alfama Films
Priestly escapade told from beyond the grave could have international appeal.

Arthouse director Philippe Ramos blends genres in a dark-tinged comedy.

It’s impossible to watch Philippe Ramos’s highly enjoyable Mad Love (Fou d'amour) and not wonder what a younger Jack Nicholson might have made of the lead role. The Witches of Eastwick star would surely have relished this story of a village priest who seduces several of his parishioners before sliding into a kind of insanity that culminates in a grisly double murder. Billed as a dark-tinged comedy, Mad Love succeeds in blending several genres, including moments of intense eroticism and mysticism, in an entertainment that could appeal to arthouse audiences both at home and abroad.

It begins with a decapitation, that of the protagonist. The unnamed priest, played by Melvil Poupaud (star of Xavier Dolan’s award-winning transgender drama Laurence Anyways), is dragged to the guillotine and beheaded, then proceeds to narrate and comment on preceding events from the box into which his head has been thrown. Casting himself as “a victim," he looks back wistfully to the day he arrived at the hilltop village of Albon, in southern France – young, tall, handsome, articulate and irresistibly attractive to the female townsfolk.

First setting up a soccer club for the local under-10's, then a theater group for the adults, he works his way into the affections of the wealthy widowed chatelaine Armance (Dominique Blanc) – not that she needs much encouragement, quite the opposite – followed by Solange, Jacqueline, Odette and (implicitly) others. These conquests are recounted in jaunty, comedic mode, with occasional cutaways to the severed head in its box with its sightless eyes and unmoving lips, describing in voiceover a rural idyll in which the priest – sly and hypocritical, but at the same time somehow innocent and engaging – rules the roost.

“Then one Sunday, everything changed…” The priest’s nemesis arrives in the form of Rose (Diane Rouxel), a beautiful young blind woman with whom he falls headlong in love, seeing her as “the purest of the pure” and yet needing desperately to seduce her. He invites Rose to join his theater group and has soon added her to his stable of paramours.

Complications soon set in; the machinery is set in motion that will lead him to the scaffold. The comedic tone is never entirely lost but becomes gradually darker as the priest’s infatuation turns to obsession. “Look at me: mad, quite mad,” the head-in-the-box comments as the priest runs off into the forest at a crucial juncture.

Ramos has a keen sense of structure and his masterstroke in Mad Love is to send his protagonist to the guillotine (the real-life priest on whose case the movie is based evaded the chop and died in his bed many years later), allowing the priest to present his story posthumously and drawing the spectator to his point of view. Another adjustment that adds poignancy is to make Rose blind; her real-life counterpart was not. The 1950's setting remains largely unchanged.

Poupaud excels as the turbulent priest, achieving a nice balance between charm, lyricism and lubricity and finely calibrating the character’s descent into megalomania and loss of reason. The film’s humor is largely ironic, based on a feeling for human fallibility, and visual: Ramos (his own cinematographer and production designer) has a painter’s eye for composition and takes pleasure in subverting religious iconography.

Winner of the top award in last month’s Montreal World Film Festival, Mad Love is arthouse moviemaking with crowdpleasing potential. Previous Ramos movies such as The Silence of Joan (2011), about the last days of Joan of Arc, or Capitaine Achab (2007), a re-imagining of the backstory of Herman Melville’s whale-chasing hero, won critical esteem but were largely unseen outside the festival circuit.

The movie has no axes to grind with regard to religion, the sexuality of priests or the death penalty, giving it crossover appeal that could help push it beyond French borders. It might also be a fair bet for an English-language adaptation, though Nicholson would probably have to be ruled out.

Production companies: Alfama Films, Rhone-Alpes Cinema
Cast: Melville Poupaud, Dominique Blanc, Diane Rouxel, Lise Lametrie, Jean-Francois Stevenin, Jacques Bonaffe
Director, screenwriter: Philippe Ramos
Producer: Paulo Branco
Director of photography: Philippe Ramos
Editor: Philippe Ramos
Production designer: Philippe Ramos
Costume designer: Marie-Laure Pinsard
Composer: Pierre-Stephane Meuge
International sales: Alfama Films

No rating, 107 minutes

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