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Strong concept weakened by odd execution in ‘Down by Love’

Does a great performance in a poor film make that film worth watching? Sometimes. It might in the case of French drama “Down by Love,” an occasionally interesting but mostly clumsy romantic drama starring Adèle Exarchopoulos and inspired by a true story.

The true story element is part of what makes “Down by Love” such an oddity. It involved a woman who was jailed following her role in a violent case fueled by anti-Semitism. While serving her sentence, she and the warden of the women’s prison in Versailles had an affair.

That’s meaty stuff, but “Down by Love” is not interested in any of those details. The film never explains what led Anna to jail in the first place, and there’s certainly no mention of anti-Semitism. (The opening titles tell us the film is “freely adapted” from a novel.)

Instead, director Pierre Godeau excises the reality and turns the story into a more straightforward love story. Unfortunately, he also excised logical character motivation and emotional impact.

There is, however, the performance of Exarchopoulos, the young actor whose stunning work in 2013’s “Blue is the Warmest Colour” earned her Palme d’Or honors at Cannes with co-star Léa Seydoux and director Abdellatif Kechiche. It was an unprecedented for actors to share the award with the director, but it was certainly deserved.

Just 22 years old, she has already proven herself to be a complex performer able to capture fragility in one moment and fierceness the next. And in “Down by Love,” Exarchopoulos takes an underwritten role and somehow creates a memorable character.

As “Down by Love” opens, Anna has arrived at prison and is greeted by catcalls and angry shouts. The camera lingers on her vacant expression, one she wears for much of the film’s first chunk.

The prison is rather quiet by cinema standards, a spot of occasional violence but also one with reality shows ever-present on the TV, camaraderie in the kitchen, and high jinks at a fashion show. (Seriously.)

Anna soon meets prison director Jean Firmino (played by Guillaume Gallienne). Married and the father of a young daughter, Jean is dedicated, likable and utterly dull. There is, quite simply, nothing compelling about him.

Even so, he and Anna forge a connection. Gallienne – a dead-ringer for beloved former Sabres center Daniel Briere – is a fine actor, but his nonchalant performance contributes to the film’s passionless feel.

The bond that forms between Anna and Jean feels curiously weak; conversations about literature and future hopes are weakly written and dramatically unbelievable. Above all else, Jean’s decision to begin a physical affair with Anna is handled in oddly cavalier fashion. (He seems to have just a night or two of contemplation before diving in.)

That’s a script issue more than an acting problem. Things head into predictable territory – stolen glances, erotic texts, many promises and numerous lies. Oddly, Jean becomes seemingly less stressed the deeper and more dangerous the relationship becomes.

Thanks goodness for the work of Exarchopoulos. While Anna’s motivations are as muddy as Jean’s, the actress expertly captures the complexities of the situation. She’s the real deal, and her performance is what makes “Down by Love” worth seeing.

The “true story” inspiration does not help, either. The more one reads about the real case, the nastier it seems. It makes Godeau’s version look deeply vapid.

“Down by Love” is a reminder that a gripping concept does not necessarily make for a strong film. Interestingly, the 2014 French thriller “The Blue Room” covered similar ground in far more successful fashion. Directed by and starring actor Mathieu Amalric, it’s a far more adult drama about infidelity that has real stakes and consequences. It makes “Love” seem downright silly by comparison.

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