His first film since 2008’s underappreciated Vinyan, Belgian director Fabrice Du Welz debuts the second installment in his proposed Ardennes trilogy, Alleluia. His 2004 directorial debut, Calvaire (aka The Ordeal) depicted a rather hellacious account of a singer whose car breaks down in the middle of the woods, stranding him in the midst of a very strange and terrifying rural community. Here, Du Welz bases his latest madness on the true account of serial killing couple Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, a case that famously inspired the 1969 film The Honeymoon Killers and 1996’s Deep Crimson, amongst others. But Du Welz hardly unveils a simple account of unhinged, obsessive love. His is a demonic hymnal of passion, a darkly droll exercise in the delusory notion of love as an unhealthy obsession told with aggressive flourish. But at its prominent dark heart is an utterly captivating performance from Spanish actress Lola Duenas.
Divided into four distinct parts, each named for a new female character introduced in each segment, we begin with the introduction of Gloria (Lola Duenas), a single mother whose last relationship didn’t end well. We meet her at work, a morgue attendant who washes the bodies of the dead. Her best friend sets up a date for her via an online ad, and Gloria reluctantly meets Michel (Laurent Lucas), a rather strange man who believes he can put spells on his dates before meeting them by burning their picture and engaging in a secret ritual. The date goes so well that the duo is immediately consumed in the throes of passionate congress, which leads to Michel staying at her place and asking Gloria to lend him some money for a business related event. Gloria does so without question, but soon finds that Michel is a con artist when he fails to return her calls, leading her to stalk him.
After confronting him, Gloria confesses she is so in love with Michel she would like to accompany him on his cons. Gloria poses as Michel’s emotionally troubled sister, yet their barely concealed intimacy causes immediate suspicion. The smitten woman, who unloads her daughter with a close friend, quickly realizes she can’t stand the thought of Michel sleeping with other women, leading her to murder their first target, a lonely old spinster Michel marries. The duo tries to contend with Gloria’s jealousy and Michel swears off sleeping with their targets. But making emotionally vulnerable ladies fall in love without sex proves to be quite difficult, leading them into a repeated series of murderous situations.
Excitingly, Du Welz reunites with Lucas, who headlined Calvaire (and who will hopefully return for the third thematic installment). Lucas, who has built an impressive resume of offbeat, fascinating fare with the likes of Bonello’s Tiresia, Marina de Van’s In My Skin, and Dominik Moll’s Lemming, takes a back seat here as the more than willing love slave to Duena’s unhinged Gloria. At each kill, he is rendered useless in the wake of her uncontrolled rampages. That is until the very last chapter, when the aggravated Gloria demands an act of violent retribution shocking even by her standards.
While Lucas deserves kudos for a pair of extremely uncomfortable sexual encounters, Duenas owns this film. An actress perhaps most recognizable for her work with Pedro Almodovar (she last appeared in his breezy I’m So Excited), she sometimes blends into the background of the supporting milieu. Not so with Alleluia, in a performance that is a force of nature. Think Shelley Winters’ love starved Charlotte Haze turning the tables on the hyper civilized Humbert Humbert, so obsessed she’d agree to play second fiddle (in theory) to conning a series of rich women for profit. Except that jealousy proves to be an incompatible Achilles heel. Du Welz gives her plenty of hysterical moments, including a dip into a musical cue that plays like a horror version of Jacques Demy.
Co-written by Vincent Tavier of Man Bites Dog fame, the film was shot in gloriously grainy 16mm, with a striking visual design from cinematographer Manuel Dacosse, who last worked on the brilliant spectacle of The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears.
A series of rich textual detail tend to lend the film additional weight, including reference to Michel’s favorite actor, who happens to be Humphrey Bogart. A spontaneous date takes the couple to see The African Queen, introducing the birth of a unique in-joke that becomes a running gag throughout (while surely having the character Solange reading a novel by Georges Simenon isn’t without purpose). Likewise, a hypnotic montage of the murderous lovers dancing naked around a bonfire, their figures in glowing shadow as they carouse like animals in heat, will surely burn itself brightly into your subconscious long after the credits roll.
One can’t help but laugh at the point early on when Gloria’s close friend tells her, “You look strange,” and we gaze into the glazed eyes of Duenas, who can only profess that love is the best feeling in the world. Theirs is a love of unhealthy obsession, related with hysterical, unforgettable flourish that manages to remain eerily believable as it does profoundly strange.
Reviewed on May 22nd at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival – Directors Fortnight – 95 Minutes