It's a sign that a nation may be losing its collective mind when it grants a nutty hack like Quentin Tarantino an exalted title like Officer of Arts and Letters, but there's France for ya. Whether Gallic pop culture is rousingly progressive or embarrassingly adolescent is anyone's call, but few other countries, regardless of their questionable foreign heroes, could deliver a movie like Love Me if You Dare. If you enjoy watching earnestness, sincerity and true love mercilessly pummeled by pathetic jerks, you may adore this film. Then again, you may also find yourself wishing to pummel it back.
Generally, this is all well and good. Much like its recent French forebears Humanité, Never on a Sunday or even dreck like Romance, the primary goal of Love Me if You Dare is to provoke feeling -- of any stripe, by any means necessary. To hell with narrative logic and behavioral plausibility, it shrieks, let's screw with some screwed-up screwheads! This it does, in spades, and even as dialogue clunks, performances flounder and show-offy imagery swarms against your eyelashes like a pesky cloud of gnats, you'll emerge having felt... something.
Ostensibly, this is a romantic comedy, centered upon uppity Julien (Guillaume Canet) and uppity Sophie (Marion Cotillard), two peculiar young frogs whose life revolves around a weird game. Since childhood, the friends-adversaries have challenged each other to awkward dares, handing off an ornate tin box to signify that the game is on. As little brats (played with mischievous glee by Thibault Verhaeghe and Josephine Lebas Joly), their dares consist largely of the show-me-yours-show-you-mine and let's-cause-a-ruckus variety. As they come of age, though -- which literally happens overnight -- their childish dares become an obsession, and probably their primary reason to exist.
Although they aren't quite stupid enough to lie down together in the middle of the road and get run over like those Long Island kids who emulated that James Caan football movie a few years ago, Julien and Sophie definitely enjoy the rush of potential self-destruction. In their teens, this includes arrogantly abusing the local sluts and jocks (pretty funny stuff, actually) or sharing a passionate kiss atop the car of an infuriated motorist. As life's responsibilities beckon, however, the ante of their game gets raised, with ever more devastating consequences.
The thing is, these dorks lack the guts to bring their love for each other into the real world. Instead, they choose to go through life punishing each other and those around them for the sincere affection that exceeds their childish grasp. Sometimes their shared "understanding" falls terribly flat, as when young adult Sophie barks of Julien's rather unpleasant-looking mom (played by Emmanuelle Grönvold), "Your mother died and left you Oedipal!" (Try not to trip in the dent that dialogue leaves in the floor.) At other times, writer-director Yann Samuell poetically nails their essence, with the kids growing up to fulfill their prescribed destinies as "tyrant" and "cream puff" in surprising ways.
Whether or not Samuell's vision is "enjoyable" in a conventional sense depends on your level of cynicism, first toward life, then toward the movie itself. If you look at romance through a prism of doom -- not like terminal tear-jerkers such as Griffin and Phoenix or Autumn in New York, but with doom as trendy fashion accessory (which is so very early-'90s, but trends take time to migrate) -- you may have some fun here. At the same time, anyone who has attended film school can tell you that student films about shallow, abusive, deranged lovers are painfully common; they're all essentially the same, and tiresome.
That said, Samuell must be lauded for what does work within the chosen framework of his first feature. Julien's strained and melancholy relationship with his widower father (Gerard Watkins) isn't funny in the slightest, but it does play convincingly. In turn, Julien's relationship with a kind, caring, apparently wonderful woman (Elodie Navarre) reveals him to be a shithead who's devastatingly incapable of perceiving a good thing when he's got it. Meanwhile, a twist involving Sophie and a struggling soccer player (Gilles Lellouche) smartly reveals that behind most powerful men, there's a nasty, sullen bitch. Plus, regarding the director's anarchic meddling with the cosmic order of things -- from the kids playing Adam and Eve (complete with fig leaves) to a conclusion that's at once satisfying and utterly miserable -- Samuel catches a few points for originality.
Still, despite a cinematically sweet but soullessly sour attempt at reconciliation, Love Me if You Dare doesn't even play fairly by its own rules. What emerges isn't a romantic comedy at all, but rather -- very much like The War of the Roses a few years back -- a cleverly disguised monster movie.