Melody's Smile

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City of Lights, City of Angels

"Melody's Smile," based on Franck Thilliez's novel "La chambre des morts," is clearly influenced by Thomas Harris' forensic serial killer novels -- and subsequent hit movies -- that include "Silence of the Lambs" and "Red Dragon."

This French film follows that formula in its depiction of a deranged killer, an intrepid female detective and morbidly graphic details involving miserable deaths and animal taxidermy. Yet this thriller stands on its own: Its approach is unique and the film more than succeeds as an audience spellbinder.

The film certainly can attract adult audiences in North America -- or at least those willing to stomach deep-dish dementia. You also wonder how long before an American remake gets announced.

Writer-director Alfred Lot adapts Thilliez's unusual and resourceful tact: You witness a series of crimes from three narrative viewpoints -- the police, victims and perpetrators. Far from robbing the film of suspense, the three narratives magnify the rising tension.

The film's central figure is policewoman Lucie (Melanie Laurent), a single mom with twin infant girls only recently promoted to detective in the seacoast town of Dunkirk. Police link two seemingly unrelated deaths -- the kidnap murder of a young blind girl and the disappearance of the girl's father, who carried a ransom of 2 million euros.

Lucie's police colleagues, including her smitten partner Norman (Eric Caravaca), quickly realize that she has a gift for recognizing patterns and methodology of criminal whack jobs. When a second girl, this one a diabetic, is kidnapped, a ticking clock is introduced into the story.

Meanwhile, the film observes the increasingly frantic behavior of two other couples. One is the unemployed men who hit the father with their car while drunk driving. Once the body was taken care of, the duo absconded with the 2 million euros. The other couple is the two female kidnappers and lovers, one a tough, level-headed crook and the other an utter kook with a Norman Bates-like fascination for preserving dead bodies.

The strain of that ticking clock begins to tell on all three couples as they race against time to make things go their way. All the characters are singularly intriguing, and in his adaptation Lot doesn't feel any need to fully explicate all their strange talents or eccentricities within the taut 115-minute running time.

The major weakness here lies with the villains. One doesn't have to fully subscribe to political correctness to find the Demonic Lesbo Killers angle a real reach. If anything it feels a bit dated, like something out of a 1950s B movie where queerness equals depravity. Furthermore, they don't work as a couple because the killer is such a severe mental case. The film struggles to give a backstory to the female killer/taxidermist that is both far-fetched and banal. But unlike the other characters in the film, these two have no humanity or pathos.

In every other facet though -- the use of cool, unusual locations, a roaming camera, the precision of the music cues and a terrific cast of actors -- "Melody's Smile" is a horror classic.

MELODY'S SMILE
Produire a Paris
Sales agent: Bac Films International
Credits:
Screenwriter-director: Alfred Lot
Based on the novel by: Franck Thilliez
Producer: Charles Gassot
Executive producer: Jacques Hinstin
Director of photography: Jerome Almeras
Production designer: Jean-Pierre Fouillet
Music: Nathaniel Mechaly
Editor: Maryline Monthieux
Cast:
Lucie: Melanie Laurent
Norman: Eric Caravaca
Sylvain: Gilles Lellouche
Vigo: Jonathan Zaccai
Annabelle: Celine Sallette
Alex: Laurence Cote
Running time -- 115 minutes
No MPAA rating
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