'Hallelujah' ('Alleluia'): Cannes Review

Halleluiah Still Cannes - P 2014
Courtesy of Festival de Cannes

Halleluiah Still Cannes - P 2014

Two rock-solid performances, gritty cinematography and an impressive mise-en-scene make for a great movie.

Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz delivers his best film to date with this French-language twist on the "Honeymoon Killers," starring Lola Duenas and Laurent Lucas.

CANNES – A crazy crook meets his murderous match in Hallelujah (Alleluia), the fourth and best feature to date from Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz. Like in his first two features, The Ordeal (Calvaire) and Vinyan, this French-language variation on the story of the Honeymoon Killers displays a flair for alloying genre tropes with flashes of psychological drama, though his latest work displays a newfound directorial confidence that makes it possible for the filmmaker to not only smoothly oscillate between gritty drama and death-filled horror but to go out on a limb several times and do things such as throw in a Sweeney Todd-like song that ends with one of the protagonists nonchalantly sawing off the foot of a person they just killed.

Besides the obvious late-night festival slots, this handsomely shot feature should do well theatrically in French-language territories and also has niche specialty potential elsewhere.

The film opens with Gloria (Spanish actress Lola Duenas) washing a corpse at the morgue of the French or Belgian hospital where she works (the geography is a little vague). Despite having a small daughter, she’s a lonely widow who needs a man in her life, at least according to her friend Madeleine (Stephane Bissot), who practically forces her to go on a date with a handsome shoe salesman, Michel (Laurent Lucas), they found via a dating website.

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All the gruesome business that’ll follow will only be credible if the duo’s initial, very complex chemistry is believable, and Du Welz is clearly aware of this, as he stages their first date, at a chic restaurant, with the precision of a military airstrike. Michel talks a lot and ladles on the gentlemanly charm like nobody’s business, while Gloria says little, at once shy and mesmerized by this man. Initially, the handheld camera looks at the couple in profile, going back and forth from one face to another in a single take, which stresses the distance and void between them across the table. But halfway through the conversation, over-the-shoulder shots and reverse shots fuse the two together, as the eye of the person opposite looks straight at the face of the other, whose head is seen from the back in the same shot.

At this point, the audience is already aware that Michel’s got a few screws loose, as the evening before the date he lit a candle in a kind of ritualistic procedure meant to make Gloria fall for him the next day (all of Du Welz’s films feature religious rituals, often to fill a void in the life of the characters). So it comes as no surprise that, after he’s slept over at Gloria’s, he asks her for some money for a business deal -- which she, still basking in post-coital bliss, readily provides -- and it is then never seen again.

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But Michel has had more of an effect on Gloria than perhaps he realized and she tracks him down, corners him and, instead of asking for her money back, says she’ll join him in getting love-seeking ladies to pay him (he confesses he learned the trade from his mother, who had men over for money and used her son when she had no costumers). After the first chapter, titled Act 1: Gloria, three more segments detail their subsequent malpractices with women: Marguerite (Edith le Merdy), whom Michel marries while Gloria poses as his (strangely Spanish-accented) sister; the rich, elderly Catholic lady Gabriella (Anne-Marie Loop) and the beautiful but lonely widow, Solange (Helena Noguerra). What becomes clear as the film progresses, is that Gloria might be even more unhinged than the man she’s almost morbidly obsessed with, and it is her jealousy that jeopardizes their elaborate game of charades to such an extent that drastic measures are needed to extract themselves from their precarious positions.

Lucas, the star of the director’s first film, The Ordeal, is perfect as the oily swindler whose eyes are always on the prize and who cannot help but be enamored of the sexual pull his character so clearly has on the women he deceives. But the true star of the film is Duenas (Penelope Cruz’s sister in Almodovar’s Volver), who goes all-out in portraying a woman so damaged and needy she will stop at nothing to get or protect what she wants and whose intensity, once it is revealed to be all-consuming, is frightening even to Michel.

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The cinematography, courtesy of Manu Dacosse (Amer, Mobile Home) is appropriately gritty and grainy throughout, showcasing Du Welz’s extremely precise mise-en-scene that helps the story move forward both as a narrative and as a character study, with numerous intense close-ups allowing the actors to turn their deranged characters into frighteningly three-dimensional human beings.

The film’s only weakness is its ending, which is so subtle it risks being interpreted by the majority of viewers as enigmatic or unclear.

Production companies: Panique, Radar Films, Savage Film, One Eyed

Cast: Lola Duenas, Laurent Lucas, Helena Noguerra, Edith le Merdy, Anne-Marie Loop, Stephane Bissot

Director: Fabrice Du Welz

Screenwriters: Fabrice Du Welz, Vincent Tavier

Producers: Vincent Tavier, Clement Miserez, Matthieu Warter

Director of photography: Manu Dacosse

Production designer: Emmanuel Demeulemeester

Costume designers: Christophe Pidres, Florence Scholtes

Editor: Anne-Laure Guegan

Composer: Vincent Cahay

Sales: SND

No rating, 95 minutes