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Writer-director Benoit Jacquot’s new movie, Eva, seems to have all the ingredients needed for a nail-biting, bodice-ripping psychosexual French thriller.
It’s based on a juicy 1945 pulp novel (written by James Hadley Chase) that was first brought to the screen by blacklisted Hollywood filmmaker Joseph Losey (in a 1962 version starring Jeanne Moreau). It has an eerie lakeside setting in the photogenic city of Annecy, situated at the foot of the French Alps. And it has a first-rate cast toplined by Isabelle Huppert, who plays the film’s titular character with a sly, slightly aloof je ne sais quoi abandon.
So why is it that the movie, which premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, never quite works?
Much of it has to do with a plot that may leave many viewers scratching their heads by the last act. Adapted by Jacquot and screenwriter Gilles Taurand, the story centers on a young gigolo, Bertrand (Gaspard Ulliel), who, in the film’s well-staged opening sequence, steals the manuscript of a dying client.
Cut to a year or so later, with Bertrand now a celebrated playwright dating the perfect blonde (Julia Roy) and living in a decked-out Parisian apartment. The only problem is that his producer (Richard Berry) has been waiting impatiently for a new play, which the imposter is somehow supposed to write.
It’s a strong setup, and in its early reels Eva creates a promising tone of menace, with Bertrand snaking his way through a world of upper-crust intellectuals he hardly belongs to. (The storyline is similar to the recent, very Hitchcockian 2015 French thriller A Perfect Man.) When Bertrand shows up in Annecy for rehearsals of his hit play, which is now touring the provinces, he crosses paths with a high-class call girl, Eva (Huppert), who quickly becomes an obsession that will ruin his life.
The problem is we never quite understand why. On one hand, Bertrand is fascinated enough by Eva to try and use her as inspiration for his new play. But his fatal attraction goes far beyond that, whereas the obvious question of age is never brought into question. After all, Eva is probably old enough to be Bertrand’s mother, which makes their dynamic very different than the one in Joseph Losey’s 1965 take on the tale, where the Jeanne Moreau and Stanley Baker characters were equals in that sense.
Even putting age aside, Bertrand’s behavior makes little sense after a certain point. He’s built a brand-new life out of being an imposter yet seems willing to throw it all away for someone who pretty much wants nothing to do with him. His relationship with Eva is not even all that sexual — more like a platonic one where Bertrand blows all his money on his muse in order to steal a few lines of dialogue.
Eva, on the other hand, seems to know exactly what she wants, and Huppert plays her with the world weariness of a woman who’s been around the block and just wants to be left alone. As a prostitute, she appears to be a local favorite, especially for older men, and we find out she’s trying to save up enough money to get her husband out of prison. That means she works all the time, and when she’s not working, she lounges around the house or takes naps. Rarely has a movie character looked as tired as Eva does, nor as fulfilled when she simply gets a good night’s sleep.
Jacquot has a hard time turning all of this into palpable drama, and Eva slides off the rails during a denouement that goes full on B-movie without much credibility. He nails down a certain ambiance, with cinematographer Julien Hirsch employing lots of red filters and composer Bruno Coulais trying to shuttle in suspense where it’s needed. But his film has neither the disturbing erotic strain of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle nor the more compassionate look at prostitution of Jacquot’s 1998 movie The School of Flesh — in which the roles were switched, with Huppert playing an older client who falls for a young and volatile gigolo.
As Eva’s deranged suitor, Ulliel offers a coolly unnerving performance, although it would be helpful if Bertrand opened his mouth a little more so we could hear what he thinks. (Ulliel’s most expressive feature here may be his prominent cheekbones, which deserve their own screen credit.) Bertrand often feels closer to an archetype than to a real person, and it’s hard to feel anything for the man when his life inevitably spirals out of control. One could argue that he’s simply getting what he deserves — or that Jacquot is underlining how this kind of swindler will never find his place among the rich and famous — but the tragic nature of this is lost on a film whose tension actually diminishes as things unravel in the third act. It’s like watching a thriller in reverse.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production company: Macassar Productions
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Gaspard Ulliel, Julia Roy, Richard Berry
Director: Benoit Jacquot
Screenwriters: Benoit Jacquot, Gilles Taurand, based on the novel by James Hadley Chase
Producers: Melita Toscan du Plantier, Marie-Jeanne Pascal
Director of photography: Julien Hirsch
Production designer: Katia Wyszkop
Costume designer: Marielle Robaut
Editor: Julia Gregory
Composer: Bruno Coulais
Casting director: Antoinette Boulat
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