- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2003

If you’ve been wondering whatever became of Jean-Jacques Beineix, the art-house prodigy of “Diva” (1982), the American Film Institute Theater can partially satisfy that curiosity. Mr. Beineix’s comeback mystery thriller, a legitimate guilty pleasure and deserving cult classic titled “Mortal Transfer,” will be playing through Thursday at the National Theater at the Kennedy Center, now an occasional showcase for AFI programs.

Released without immediate success in France three years ago and neglected by American importers, “Mortal Transfer” derives from a mystery novel of the same name by Jean-Pierre Gattegno. The setting is Paris in the winter, and the protagonist is a psychoanalyst named Michel Durand, played by Jean-Hughes Anglade, a newcomer back in the middle 1980s when he was cast as the leading man in Mr. Beineix’s stupefying “Betty Blue.”

The first remark we hear from Durand is “I’m crazy,” and the incriminating, nightmarish circumstances that oblige him to wriggle out of criminal jeopardy certainly encourage crazed behavior.

Observed during a consultation with his own mentor and analyst, the venerable Dr. Zlibovic (Robert Hirsch), Durand confesses that he’s been nodding off while listening to the deliberately obscene musings of his most shameless patient, Olga Kubler (Helene de Fougerolles). A wealthy young masochist and kleptomaniac, married to an unsavory developer named Max (Yves Renier), Olga likes to kick off her heels and let down her hair while reclining on the analyst’s couch.

However, her obsession with talking dirty has begun to pall. Shortly after being alerted to this occupational hazard, we witness a terminal seance: Olga goes into her degenerate tease, Durand falls asleep, and a shadowy figure enters his office to strangle the self-absorbed patient.

After the refreshing nap, Durand discovers that he has a warm corpse in his custody. He attempts artificial respiration, a desperate measure mistaken for strenuous sex play by his Cambodian housekeeper, who briefly enters with a snack tray, placed delicately at the office door before she retreats.

Three plausible suspects, excluding Durand himself, make suspicious appearances after the crime: the ominous and now widowed Max, who claims that Olga has lifted a fortune in cash and believes Durand is probably her paramour and accomplice; a neighborhood drifter and raconteur who calls himself Erostrate (Miki Manojlovic in a witty and eventually spellbinding performance); and a sex-starved patient named Jacques Preco (Jean-Pierre Becker), who admits to lurking around on the fatal day.

Mr. Beineix’s depiction of the murder suggests that Durand is an unlikely culprit. Sleepwalking isn’t one of his afflictions. On the other hand, he’s prone to nightmares that allow the director plenty of bizarre leverage, so ambiguity does cling to the doctor’s efforts to salvage a calamity. It’s not reassuring that he elects to conceal poor Olga — initially under the couch, since another patient is at the door soon after the homicide. Body disposal becomes a sustained pretext for morbid slapstick, beginning with Durand’s midnight attempt to lug the victim, wrapped in a carpet, across an icy thoroughfare to his parked car. This task invites comparisons with Laurel and Hardy trying to ferry a piano across a narrow, swaying rope bridge.

Durand must also try to explain himself to a police detective, Chapireau (Denis Podalydes), and a potential new consort, a pop artist named Helene (Valentina Sauca). Although a screwball in her own right, Helene is more infuriated than intrigued by all the weird baggage piling up around a new beau.

Jean-Jacques Beineix ended an eight-year hiatus from mainstream filmmaking with “Mortal Transfer.” Evidently, he devoted himself to painting and occasional documentary projects, attracted to such subjects as Japanese hobbyists, Romanian orphans and the Clichy district of Paris.

Mr. Beineix returns with his flair for imagery and atmosphere undiminished. His sense of comic incongruity is better focused than it used to be. When “Mortal Transfer” is funny, the effects are usually deliberate. One was never quite sure with “Moon in the Gutter” or “Betty Blue.”

Perhaps the source material here was clever enough to provide the Olga mystery with a secure framework. Gratifyingly, a reasonable explanation for the murder is contrived, along with reasonable explanations for what all the suspects were up to.

Given the shortcomings of such current mysteries as “Swimming Pool” and Brian De Palma’s “Femme Fatale,” the neglect of “Mortal Transfer” is puzzling. Mr. Beinex has orchestrated the sort of Freudian blowout that eluded Mr. De Palma, keeping the carnal, the sinister and the satirical in entertaining balance.

***

TITLE: “Mortal Transfer”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter, consistent with the R category — frequent profanity and sexual candor, including interludes of simulated intercourse and sadomasochistic abuse, with borderline hard-core depiction; occasional graphic violence and nudity; sustained morbid humor involving the concealment and burial of a corpse)

CREDITS: Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix. Screenplay by Mr. Beineix, based on a novel by Jean-Pierre Gattegno. Cinematography by Benoit Delhomme. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 122 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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