- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 27, 2004

Yann Samuell, the director and co-writer of the insufferable French import “Love Me if You Dare,” introduces himself as a boldly dynamic stylist. The prologue aspires rather prematurely to tear-jerking virtuosity, anticipating a beloved mother’s early departure from the plot. While accentuating rhapsodic fantasy, Mr. Samuell levitates juvenile characters through layers of stagecraft, suggesting a somewhat tardy bid for the right to remake “Peter Pan.”

Mr. Samuell’s ill-omened updates of Peter and Wendy are called Julien and Sophie. They become soul mates in a Parisian grammar school, where Julien, who belongs to the vulnerable mother, comes to the defense of Sophie, the offspring of Polish transplants and the object of chauvinistic teasing. Their devotion takes precociously antisocial forms.

A toy carousel is exchanged when Julien and Sophie begin to evolve a dangerous game, daring one another to do something outrageous. The dares result in such escapades as spouting obscene words in roughly alphabetical order, urinating on the classroom floor and playing genital show-and-tell while hiding beneath a banquet table at a wedding party. In short, all the “transgressive” cliches of a French movie with something moronic to prove.

The kids also end up as inseparable roommates, somewhere in the elastic interval between the widowerhood of Julien’s distraught father and the advent of college years. The juvenile actors playing the two give way to Guillaume Canet as Julien and Marion Cotillard as Sophie for the duration. This leap in continuity requires another decade and a half of obsessive and self-destructive pranks before the unhealthy relationship can be consummated, with a suicidal but mutually gratifying flourish.

Rediscovered as university students, Julien and Sophie pick up lewdly where they left off. He dares her to appear for an exam wearing bra and panties as outer clothing. She dares him to seduce a despised classmate in order to steal a pair of earrings Sophie covets. A separation intrudes on all this playful perversity, but the game resumes when Julien humiliates Sophie at his engagement party and she retaliates by crashing his wedding. He tries to get even by daring her to stand blindfolded on a railroad track; she cheats, living to up the ante after a second, longer separation.

Self-control eludes Julien and Sophie, who prove too bad for each other to outgrow the game. One tumultuous outburst results in Julien being set up for a burglary rap and Sophie being conned into believing that he has suffered dire injuries in a traffic accident. Finally out of clever reprisals, they settle for a grandiose suicide pact, which Mr. Samuell celebrates as a Dionysian triumph of romantic egotism.

Although “Love Me” is headlong, incorrigible rubbish, Mr. Samuell does bring some flashy and even attractive pictorial skills to the illustration of a sociopathic romantic myth. It’s not out of the question that his flair for imagery might be wedded, sooner or later, to a less crackpot pretext.

Mr. Samuell hasn’t quite got the “Amelie” hang of things: he fails to create enough enchantment and good will in the early going to be forgiven wretched excesses in the closing stages. “Love Me” chokes on affectation and lunacy before the exposition is out of diapers.

* 1/2

TITLE: “Love Me If You Dare” (Original French title: “Jeux d’enfants”)

RATING: R (Systematic glorification of sociopathic behavior; occasional profanity, sexual vulgarity and graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Yann Samuell. Written by Jacky Cukier and Mr. Samuell. Cinematography by Antoine Roch. Production design by Jean-Michel Simonet. Costume design by Julie Mauduech. Music by Philippe Rombi. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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