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Wednesday, April 23, 2003

'Fatal Attraction' meets, well, 'Amelie'

A la folie . . . pas du tout

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Laetitia Colombani
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: French
Opens Apirl 26

My brother is the kind of guy who said Amelie -- the character played by Audrey Tautou in "Le fabuleux destin d'Amelie Poulain" (2001) -- gave him the creeps. "If a girl came after me the way Amelie went after what's-his-face, I'd be too scared to walk the streets at night."

News photo
Audrey Tautou in "A la folie . . . pas du tout"

Sweet, lovely Amelie was the title character of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's global box-office sensation, which was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. How dare my brother, aka Mr. Botched Relationships, dare criticize what some say was the cutest love story in, like, decades?

But after seeing "A la folie . . . pas du tout (He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not)," starring Tautou as a love-struck art student, I've reached the same conclusion: The character of Amelie is a bit creepy, only it takes a film like "A la folie" to make you realize that darling Amelie and her antics could just possibly be construed as, well, stalking. Director Laetitia Colombani insists there is no intended connection between the two films, and that she hadn't even seen "Amelie" when she started this project. How strange, then, that one movie should make you see another in a different light, especially when they're not directly related.

Still, it's hard to shake off the deja vu feeling, especially during the opening scenes. We see the enraptured face of Angelique (Tautou), breathing in the smell of roses at a picture-perfect florist in Bordeaux. She happily buys a single purple rose and talks the manager into delivering it to her boyfriend Loic (Samuel Le Bihan), a successful cardiologist. She then pedals her quaint-looking bicycle to her art class, humming all the way. Too besotted to concentrate, all her drawings turn out as portraits of her lover. That night, she and Loic attend a party and disappear into the bathroom, presumably for a tryst, before driving home together. Throughout this sequence, Angelique's face is a precision mask of a girl madly in love. Tautou pretty much repeats her performance in "Amelie" as a sweetly shy young woman with a special talent for giving happiness to the people she loves. She even inhabits a similar artsy apartment and wears a lot of black and red in her outfits.

But if "A la folie" is "Amelie's " parallel-universe version, then it's governed by a different set of rules. Having done with the preliminaries of romance in the first 15 minutes, Colombani quickly moves the story along to reveal some dark surprises. First off, Loic is married and he's not a very committed lover. He's not entirely to blame either, since Angelique (despite her name) is often just plain mean. When she spies Loic and his pregnant wife Rachel (Isabelle Carre) in an affectionate embrace, she scrawls a spiteful message on his car ("Don't let your wife interfere with our love!"). When she discovers that Rachel has had a miscarriage, Angelique announces with real glee: "This is wonderful, now he can leave her and we can take an extended trip to Italy!"

Angelique flits between excessive happiness and deep disappointment (which often erupts in disturbing behavior), and it all hangs on whether Loic seems ready to leave his wife or not. There's a terrible fascination in seeing Angelique launch a campaign much like Amelie's to get a guy's attention, but failing to achieve similar results. The harder she tries, the more stressed out Loic gets. So much so, in fact, that he arouses suspicions at home and alienates colleagues at work. But just when you think you can't stand his irritation or Angelique's antics anymore, the story shuts itself like a concertina, and then pulls back out again, to retell the story, from the beginning, from Loic's point of view.

Contrary to how this sounds, "A la folie" is not an argument about two differing versions of reality. There's only one reality, and the film weaves a scary tale of denial and self-deception around that fact. What starts out as a fluffy French love story turns into a dark, somewhat excessive take on the hazards of obsession.

Tautou's amazingly perceptive performance tops what she did in "Amelie." She seems to know with utter conviction that a heavy-duty appeal for love (even coming from a beautiful young woman such as herself) can be a major turn-off if not completely terrifying, and she customizes her acting to reflect it. Especially effective is when she's lying to her friends about how devoted she and Loic are -- her mouth is pulled in a wide smile but her eyes remain deadly cold. Contrast this expression with the one she wears when she's actually in Loic's presence: a blend of genuine passion and desperate seduction. Brrrr.

One would hope that after this, directors will deploy Tautou's talents in different ways. That they will put her in a new environment where she doesn't have to plan and scheme and do acrobatic maneuvers just to get some guy to notice her, and where love is not the all-encompassing, dominant factor in a girl's life.

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