Rivalry, resentment and a razor-sharp style transform a simple tale of office politics into a Machiavellian battle of wits. Kristen Scott Thomas, as a senior executive in a multinational company, is the epitome of cold cruelty as the clever cat that underestimates her mouse. Ludivine Sagnier, as her ingénue, ingeniously turns the tables in a remarkable transformation from hapless to heartless—but then, suddenly, the bottom falls out from beneath this film. The plot twists in horribly implausible directions, leaving Sagnier stranded. Her character is not so much pitiless as pitiful, and there our sympathies end. What began as a cool battle of wills becomes a web of silly intrigue. I suspect that it won't be long for the box office cachet to fade on this painfully misguided film. Even Brian DePalma‘s plans for a remake won't help once word of mouth spreads.
It's too bad really; the leads certainly prove noteworthy opponents. Both Scott Thomas and Sagnier captivate. Mind you, director Alain Corneau provided the right set up to start: cryptic scenes with just enough nuance to establish the women's characters' and relationship. There is a lot left unspoken and it adds credence to the build up of suspense. Do they or don't they trust each other? And what's fuelling the unnamed fire beneath this so-called business relationship?
Christine (Scott Thomas) is a loving task master who takes advantage of the respect she commands over her assistant Isabelle (Sagnier): even to the point of an extended, suggestive tease. Sexual undertones are rampant but restrained. In fact, the beginning of the film is a classic exercise in this restraint. Everything and everyone is understated; a delicate undertaking that creates intrigue for theses characters as they partake in their bizarre game. The stakes are high in this world of corporate wheeling and dealing, and it's not hard to believe that the fights, even internally, do get dirty.
But Corneau's critical gaffe was to hint at a relationship akin to a friendship at the outset only to switch gears mid-route. There's a definite power dynamic but there's also an emotional tie—call it love, call it loyalty, call it a mixture of both. It's not so surprising when Christine begins to toy with Isabelle's feelings, but the depth of the destruction that follows merely confounds. The restraint that Corneau worked so hard to develop in the first part of the film becomes a suddenly a distant memory further in.
The fury driving this supposed crime of passion is dumbfounding. There's a crime alright, but there's no passion to speak of. There's always fun to be had when duplicitous characters go at each other with relish—even more so when they hide behind the pretences of sophistication—but the wildly flailing, uncontrolled overtones that emerge unexplainably in this film kill all that fun. Not much else remains.
Distributor: IFC Films
Director: Alain Corneau
Cast: Ludivine Sagnier, Kristin Scott Thomas, Patrick Mille
Screenwriters: Alain Corneau, Natalie Carter
Producer: Saïd Ben Saïd
Running time: 106 min.
Release date: September 2 NY