The latest piece of cotton candy in the ever-prolific François Ozon’s filmography, The Crime is Mine (Mon Crime) finds him restaging a 1934 play by Georges Berr and Louis Verneuil in a mode stuck somewhere between 1930s film pastiche and contemporary sensibilities. The film opens with the kind of theatrical flourish one can only find in the movies: a curtain rises to reveal a pool in front of a house, as we follow Madeleine Verdier (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) through the Paris streets of this era. Ozon shows his cards too quickly as she soon bumps into Isabelle Huppert, instantly recognizable to most moviegoers despite sporting a blowout hairdo. She will later be revealed as a formerly beloved silent film star named Odette Chaumette, but first, we must learn a thing or two about Madeleine. An aspiring actress struggling to make ends meet, she has a confrontation with her landlord that goes through the first two lines of that old, quick stage play: “You must pay the rent!” “I can’t pay the rent!”
Madeline’s sympathetic roommate, a would-be lawyer named Pauline (Rebecca Marder), is where Ozon’s contemporary contributions start to make their way to the fore and this early conflict resolves itself. Two previous Hollywood adaptations of the play Mon Crime were fundamentally heterosexual and romantic: 1937’s True Confession was a Carole Lombard/Fred MacMurray vehicle, and 1946’s Cross My Heart was a showcase for Betty Hutton. The plot always involves the murder of a moneyed figure who preys upon our struggling female artist lead, before getting killed by someone else. The artist is treated as the presumptive murderer, and she jumps on a false guilty plea as a potential big break. The client gets away with it via mitigating circumstances, but the actual murderer becomes jealous of the subsequent financial success of both the artist and the lawyer, and enters the fray to potentially mess things up with the truth. Usually, the female lead falls in love with their lawyer at the end, but Ozon codes Pauline as a lesbian with unrequited feelings for Madeleine. (She’s clearly done a fantastic job keeping her longings under wraps, as her and Madeleine are shown bathing together.) Odette turns up as the actual murderer of the producer, allowing Huppert to indulge in a more self-consciously ridiculous variation on one of her typically amoral characters; a friendlier variation on Norma Desmond and the obvious scene-stealer of the parts.
Ozon’s nods to cinema up to and including the 1930s run fast and frequent throughout The Crime is Mine. Our two leads attend Billy Wilder’s debut film Bad Seed, while Odette claims to have worked with Max Linder (on a fictional film named after The Rite of Spring), Louis Feuillade, Abel Gance, and, in the line that will most surely date this to the 2020s, “the great Alice Guy.” Most notable are a series of restagings of the supposed crime, shot in black-and-white and with slight stylistic adjustments as needed: when Odette’s version is shown, she employs silent-era acting gestures. Pauline’s subsequent success as an actress also features a brief film pastiche of her as Marie Antoinette, on the way to be beheaded. The glossy digital appearance of these visuals is dispiriting: only a monochrome filter and other similarly superficial attempts made to approach the intended aesthetic, with not a speck of grain.
Moral complications are similarly glossy in The Crime is Mine. Overqualified actors like Fabrice Luchini and André Dussollier turn up in supporting roles, but only the three women stand out, and the potential complexities of a triangle involving unrequited lesbian feelings and blackmail over a murder don’t register by virtue of the one-dimensional men around them. Said men hold all the cards: jurors and judges in the French legal system (currently getting quite the showcase from France’s film industry), wealthy producers who use the casting couch, landlords demanding rent, and wealthy industrialists and their sons who give and take the prospect of serving as a savior via a potential marriage as they see fit. The film is clearly attempting to spin up a feminist showcase of old material, but the women’s tactics to make their fortune are largely the result of being surrounded by male chauvinist buffoons. More visual playfulness may have helped make this approach work, perhaps in the vein of something from the Technicolor era, but Ozon frequently leaves the cast acting in a void of unutilized settings with brown interiors. Tereszkiewicz and Marder never delve into the darker sides of their characters, but there’s also admittedly not much of an opportunity to do so; all the attempts at tonal heightening come from the costuming and Huppert. By the time The Crime is Mine comes to its conclusion, with the two actresses turning their false trauma into a surprisingly explicit play about female solidarity, a beaming Pauline in the roaring audience, the sanitized dynamics and false cheer have resulted in a film that immediately dissipates from the mind.
DIRECTOR: François Ozon; CAST: Nadia Tereszkiewicz, Isabelle Huppert, Rebecca Marder, Dany Boon; DISTRIBUTOR: Music Box Films; IN THEATERS: December 25; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 42 min.