"Love Crime" is a sometimes juicy mix of romance, nasty office politics and stunning modern decor that would have worked so much better if it hadn't tried so hard to explain itself.
Kristin Scott Thomas is icily on her mark as Christine, a beautifully cruel Parisian executive who gets more kicks from toying with her minions' emotions -- loving them, humiliating them, blackmailing them -- than from closing any deal.
Her wiles have kept her securely in the catbird seat, until she takes on an adoring junior executive, Isabelle. Ludivine Sagnier (known mostly to U.S. audiences for her similar role opposite Charlotte Rampling in "Swimming Pool") begins the film as Christine's innocent protege, but quickly learns from the master.
Christine has no qualms about taking credit for Isabelle's work, and lightly shrugs it off when Isa pouts about it: "It's not a betrayal," she says with a smirky smile, "it's teamwork!"
Isabelle makes it clear she's not buying it.
The actresses play their parts broadly -- and that works for a while, until director Alain Corneau lets them spin so far from reality that they could almost fit into a "Desperate Housewives" episode. The men in the supporting cast don't help -- they are little more than spear carriers, their entrances and exits choreographed in a surprisingly clunky style.
Meanwhile, Christine and her Isa circle one another, each plotting to get the upper hand, each underestimating the other's ruthlessness.
And it is here, about midway through, that their game of calculated manipulation and revenge starts to trip over itself.
It happens when our "Working Girl" tries to make a surprise turn into a chilling "Black Swan"-like territory, and overdoes it by half. No one in the audience will be fooled by the set-up for the movie's centerpiece crime, and no one needs Corneau's heavy-handed flashbacks to explain how it was done.
Even the actors look like they're having trouble with it. Sagnier, now pretending to be a woman pretending to be something else, loses touch with the charm she shows at the film's start, and her character flattens out so much it's hard to stay interested in her fate.
What we wind up with is a case of way too much evidence against a suspect, and, at the same time, way too many alibis, which undercuts our earlier enjoyment of the dicey interplay between Scott Thomas and Sagnier. What started out smartly winds up seeming not so bright after all. One wonders how much the health of Corneau, who died last year of cancer, had to do with the unraveling.
"Love Crime," a title that sounds much better in the French "Crime d'amour," has some enjoyable twists and lovely settings -- Christine's ultra-modern chateau, Isabelle's sleek if less opulent abode -- that make it a fine film to visit, but, really, you wouldn't want to live there.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Kristin Scott Thomas, Ludivine Sagnier, Patrick Mille
DIRECTOR: Alain Corneau
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
RATING: Not rated, but PG-13 equivalent for sexual activity and brief violence. In French with subtitles.
THE LOWDOWN: A manipulative Parisian executive meets her match when she crosses the wrong person -- the young protege who adores her.