As you watch Alain Corneau's Love Crime, take a minute to try to decide who has the iciest, deadliest pair of eyes -- Kristin Scott Thomas or Ludivine Sagnier.
They play allies who become foes in this wonderfully chilly little tale of corporate combat. Figurative knives are drawn long before an actual knife -- a chef's knife that figures prominently in the plot -- is drawn.
Corneau's film is a delicious puzzle: not a whodunit but, rather, a story in which you try to figure out how she's going to get away with it.
She, in this case, is Isabelle (Sagnier), deputy to Christine (Thomas), head of the Paris office of a multinational agro-business concern. They are first glimpsed working late at Christine's gorgeously appointed home -- and, for a moment, you may think you're watching a Sapphic seduction, so obviously does Christine seem to be sending signals to Isabelle.
In short order, we see Christine's real game. She's a corporate climber, more than willing to manipulate Isabelle -- an obvious rising star -- to give her best and then to claim the work as her own. She even sends Isabelle on a much-prized trip to Cairo to make a presentation and throws in her own boy toy, Philippe (Patrick Mille), an attorney for the company with whom Christine has been sleeping -- and with whom Isabelle now begins an affair.
Isabelle's work lands Christine the promotion she's been seeking, to head the company's New York office. But Isabelle's assistant convinces her that she shouldn't stand for Christine riding on Isabelle's accomplishments -- and helps her launch a new, obviously sought-after project without putting Christine in the loop. Suddenly Christine's promotion is in jeopardy, as the corporate honchos take a second look at Isabelle and reevaluate Christine.
Let's leave it at that; to say more would spoil an intricate and surprising plot that plays out perfectly in the film's last half hour. Suffice to say that Corneau has built a better mousetrap, a mystery where the pieces are mostly in plain sight and yet the audience is kept in suspense. The reversals -- including a brutal murder -- build to a tasty climax.
The real treat, however, is the work done by Thomas and Sagnier. Thomas' Christine is the picture of casual deceit, a woman of confidence and authority. She makes Christine a skilled corporate chess master, as capable of actual dirty tricks as of innuendo and manipulation. Thomas gives her a diamond-hard veneer, until the viewer is convinced that she's willing to do whatever is necessary for her own benefit.
Sagnier is her equal, in different ways. Softer-looking, slightly mousy and obsessively neat, her Isabelle is an apt pupil, pushing herself to unexpected extremes after first trying to play fair. Sagnier's gaze cools from eager longing to increasingly chilly calculation, as Isabelle finds unexpected depths to her own capacity for skulduggery.
Love Crime pulls you in and doesn't let go. It's smart, vicious and oh so tasty.
Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.
Follow Marshall Fine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/hollywoodnfine