Only the French would or could make an existential serial killer noir drama, and author Eric Cherriere makes his feature debut doing exactly that in Cruel, a meticulously crafted and mesmerizing deconstruction of the mind of a murderer.
Moody, esoteric, thought-provoking and, not surprisingly literary, writer-director Cherriere is more interested in examining his main character’s inner life and twisted motivation than assigning blame or making statements of condemnation. Violent without being needlessly explicit and curious without being sensational, Cruel is sure to find a home on the lineups of festivals around the globe, and an art house release in Europe and North America seems highly likely.
Pierre (Jean-Jacques Lelte) is an intensely anonymous 40-year-old living in Toulouse with his advanced Alzheimer’s–afflicted father, Gabriel (Maurice Poli). He works temp jobs — at a recycling plant and an aircraft facility — caught in an endless loop of routine mundanity. And to make matters worse, he’s not making ends meet. Above all that, he seems to be trapped in a happier past, specifically a day during his childhood spent frolicking on the beach with his dead mother.
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His respite from tedium and oblivion is murder. When he’s not caring for his dad, Pierre kidnaps, toys with and eventually kills random strangers in a bid to feel alive and, more crucially, recognized. Ironically, Pierre keeps his victims in underground caverns built by his grandfather during WWII to protect Jews. Unhappy with his ongoing invisibility, Pierre steps up his game quite brutally, finally getting the attention of the press, the public and the police.
But then Pierre meets Laure (Magali Moreau), and his compulsions, while never completely vanishing, take a back seat to his burgeoning romance. Now that he has the kind of attention he’s wanted for so long, he can take a step back from homicide. It doesn’t last, however, as Laure’s complicated past finally catches up to both of them.
Cruel’s driving tension is in the pull of Pierre’s dark side, his lonely anonymity and the violence that springs from it, and his respectful, tender relationship with Laure. We rarely see them interacting at night — that’s Pierre’s personal time and a physical (albeit unsubtle) representation of his two lives as it were. And he is indeed cruel, carefully picking and choosing his victims and abducting them at times that will inflict maximum pain on friends and family.
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Lelte plays Pierre with a stillness that simultaneously belies how dangerous he is and shouts it from the rooftops; the steady intoning of Pierre reading from the journals in which he documents his kills never alters pace or pitch. It’s an unsettling effect, and Lelte is completely in control of it. In addition to impeccable images created with cinematographer Mathias Touzeris, Cherriere and his sound mixers do a clever job of creating the private haven Pierre slips off to every so often.
It could be hokey, but it’s not, and it provides the perfect aural complement to the carefully constructed images. By the time the inevitable conclusion rolls around (and it hews closely to crime/noir conventions), the film has raised more questions than it’s answered but avoids feeling unfinished thanks to Cherriere’s focus and clarity of vision.
Production company: De Pure Fiction
Cast: Jean-Jacques Lelte, Magali Moreau, Maurice Poli, Hans Meyer, Yves Afonso, Stephane Henon
Director-screenwriter: Eric Cherriere
Producer: Isabel Desesquelles, Eric Cherriere
Director of photography: Mathias Touzeris
Editor: Jean-Christian Tassy
Music: Olivier Cussac
Casting directors: Valerie Cloutee, Serge Regourd
No MPAA rating, 109 minutes