A friend asked me about my BIFF film line up yesterday, and as I sorted through the pieces of information that stuck in my brain after reading hundreds of blurbs, at least three of my descriptions started with, “It’s about this serial killer…”
“I’m starting to see a pattern forming,” she chided.
It’s true. I like dark. I am drawn primarily to character driven films, and even more so to films that explore the blackest parts of the human psyche. Consequently, French film noir, Cruel, was one of the first tickets I locked down.
At Thursday night’s opening party, I spotted Cruel’s director, crime novelist Eric Cherriere, who I recognized from his headshot in the BIFF catalogue. I approached him with enthusiasm
“Eric, right?” He nodded.
“Your film is called Cruel?” He nodded again, this time with a surprised, yet satisfied smile. What first time feature director doesn’t want to be recognized in a star-studded crowd?
“You’ll be doing a Q and A after tomorrow’s screening.”
I took a gulp of my free Jameson. “So, you’re staying at the Seacloud?” Eric’s expression changed, if only slightly, as he looked around for potential escape routes. Great. Day one of BIFF and I’ve managed to creep out a director who made a movie about a serial killer.
As the opening credits rolled, cross cut with images of a child on a seaside family holiday, pontificating about how he wanted to grow up to slay dragons and marry his mommy, I felt an immediate affinity for the film’s aesthetic.
Fast forward thirty some odd years, and we find Pierre (Jean-Jacques Lelte) cleaning a multifarious arsenal of weapons. It has been three years since Pierre made his first kill, a random act committed as a way to assuage his perpetual melancholy. Ever since, he has been meticulously studying targeted victims, random characters from around his hometown of Toulouse, before kidnapping and eventually killing them.
Pierre spends his day working temp jobs and his nights caring for his father, who has advanced Alzheimer’s, with genuine compassion and sensitivity. He takes his dinners with his hostages, who he keeps locked in a hidden basement that was designed by his grandfather during WWII to hide Jews from the S.S. We are given windows to Pierre’s inner workings both through his interactions with his victims and through the narratives about each victim, which he logs in notebooks in the second person, almost as if engaged in a subjective conversation with himself.
One day, when he visits a local bookseller (Hans Meyer), who is the closest thing that Pierre has to a friend, to purchase notebooks, he is introduced to Laure (Magali Moreau), a pianist with a troubled past. The relationship that evolves between them, a surprisingly tender love story, shakes up Pierre’s world. Until now, the connection between his killings have gone unnoticed, and he has gone to great lengths to protect his invisibility. With his growing love for Laure comes the realization that he no longer wants to be invisible.
According to Cherriere during his Q&A, there is no rhyme or reason to how Pierre chooses his victims and there is no pointed psychological explanation, other than the traumatic death of his mother, for his violence. Normally, this would bother me, but it didn’t simply because of the tremendous empathy I felt for Cruel’s antihero,hauntingly portrayed by Jean-Jaques Lelte, who I was shocked to learn was a non-actor.
Cruel is, at it’s core, the quintessential ‘profile of a killer’ flick. As a friend who watched the film with me put it, it largely “paints within the lines.” However, Cherriere’s beautiful execution of the subject matter really sets it apart from other films in this genre. It’s stunning cinematography and eclectic score augment the plot’s roller coaster of emotions and three-dimensionality of each character makes Pierre’s journey that much more interesting. I’m looking forward to running into Eric at tonight’s French party and telling him how much I enjoyed his film… and seeing if I can come up with a way to creep him out even more.
Cruel is screening on Sunday, October 5th at 8:00pm (335) and Thursday, October 9th at 8:00pm (770)