Carnal Knowledge: The Larrieu Bros.’ Strange Depiction of Summer Lovin’
Directing duo Arnaud and Jean-Marie Larrieu create oddly distinct pieces of bizarre cinema, yet remain relatively unknown outside of France even though they’ve been regularly presenting new features over the past decade. Their latest is a necrophilic inspired sexual awakening comedy, blasting away at the usual sort of conventions we’re accustomed to in similar provincially mannered fare. Reteaming with a few ensemble players who’ve populated their last features, 21 Nights with Pattie is an enigmatic pattern of elements both unpredictable and borderline grotesque. Delightfully strange, and featuring an excellent ensemble of familiar French faces, this is certainly a more inventive take on the sexual awakening portrait—sort of like a romantic comedy version of Georges Bataille with just a dash of Jorg Buttgereit.
Caroline (Isabelle Carre) travels to a small village in the Pyrenees to bury her mother, a woman she’d been estranged from for several years. Leaving her husband (Sergei Lopez) and kids at home, Caroline is quickly distracted by the sexually explicit practices of the locals, including her mother’s cleaning woman, Pattie (Karin Viard), tending to the house until the funeral takes place. Balking at the way in which her free-spirited mother was living, Caroline is shocked when she returns from a gathering to find her mother’s corpse has been stolen. But who would do such a thing? Jean (Andre Dussollier) is another unexpected guest to show up, and convinced the police’s theory of an ex-lover as the culprit is most assuredly correct. While the investigation continues, Caroline begins to become acclimated to her own desires.
Isabelle Carre also remains relatively unknown in English speaking territories, a pity considering her superb performances in titles from Ozon, Resnais, Jean-Pierre Ameris, and Michel Spinosa. Remarkably fresh-faced, Carre gives an attenuated performance as a frigid woman who manages to tap into her carnal desires after subjected to the over-sexed locals, led in frequent, garish detail by the chatty Karin Viard as the eponymous Pattie.
Viard is also an exquisitely talented and prolific performer, appearing in several of the Larrieu Bros. previous titles. Marvelously unaware of social cues, she primes Carre for blossoming with lurid tales of escapades with local men, most notably the animalistic weirdo played by Denis Lavant as a man who speaks in garbled French. Sex, desire, and death are explored in the phantom threat of necrophilia once Caroline’s mother’s corpse comes up missing, an idea initially planted by the local police, for why else steal a dead body unless you want to have sex with it?
Andre Dussollier, impressively game for whatever any scenario could call for, is the mysterious old friend who shows up, a man who may or may not be a famous author, J.M.G. Le Clezio who could potentially have fathered Caroline. Meanwhile, Caroline begins to undergo a transformation, flirtatiously returning the attentions of Pattie’s lusty teenage son, while Pattie and Jean carry on with taboo fantasy role-play. Much like their complex set of characters engaged with the apocalypse in Happy End (2009) and their noir-tinged Philippe Djian adaptation Love is the Perfect Crime (2013), the Larrieu Bros. continue to fascinate with a penchant for odd perspectives while upending expectations.
Reviewed on March 11th at the 2016 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema – 115 Mins.