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Eiffel Trifle: Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard get all wet in a good French way in 'Love Me If You Dare.'

Ciné Skittles

'Love Me If You Dare' wants to be this year's candy-colored French postcard

By Richard von Busack

THE SKITTLES commercial represents the perfection of a certain trend in modern cinema. The story line changes in these weird little 30-second dramas, but it's usually the same theme. We see lowering skies—Mordor weather—over some blasted remote field or storm clouds hovering over stony, ominous architecture, looming over some isolated figure. Then, with the suddenness of a cloudburst, a burst of color showers into the tinted but almost black-and-white frame. The quality of Skittles is not strained; it raineth from the heavens.

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ delivers a dandy Skittles moment. The crucifixion is almost over, and the storm is about to commence. The centurion piercing Jesus' side is sprayed with a computer-animated golden-red shower of blood. Soaked, the soldier sinks to his knees, as ecstatic as the candy-covered Skittleslandians.

The direct source for Skittles cinema is Tim Burton's sugar-frosted expressionism, as spread by his co-worker Bo Welch in The Cat in the Hat and as practiced overseas by Caro and Jeunet (The City of Lost Children and in Jeunet's solo film, Amélie).

Like the films of his fellow former animators Burton, Caro and Jeunet, director Yann Samuell's debut, Love Me If You Dare, is all bile and glitter. The movie takes place in a France gone gray-green and khaki with disappointment, but Samuell shocks it with sparkly, sometimes pink highlights.

The film was shot in Brussels and Liege. Just as filmmakers have to go to Canada to find locations that look nostalgically American—the real small-town America is just too thrashed—Euro filmmakers need to go to Belgium to find something that looks nostalgically French, with the bulgemobiles, spud-faced peasants, brick houses and stodgy striped wallpaper, the same kind of wallpaper that killed Oscar Wilde.

And Love Me If You Dare, with its operetta title, is Franco-nostalgic to an extreme that would blanche Amélie herself. One local theater that ought to know better has decorated itself with a dinky carousel and a tiny EIffel Tower in anticipation of the crowds for this film. This movie works Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose" like an Alabama mule.

My guess is that it will fly at the box office. Love Me If You Dare should be this summer's Amélie, or this summer's The Triplets of Belleville: a kind and gentle Continental movie, a salable vision of France as the world's quaintest place. The original title translates as Child's Play, and that says it all.

Sometime in the recent but mossy past, Julien (Guillaume Canet as an adult, Thibault Verhaeghe as a child) befriends a fellow reject named Sophie (Marion Cotillard as an adult, Joséphine Lebas-Joly as a child). He's got a mom ailing of terminal cancer; she is the child of Polish immigrants and lives in a high-rise project. At school, they become friends, and Sophie sleeps over in Julien's bed late into adolescence. The two are neither quite lovers nor quite siblings. But they still carry out their childhood game of proposing dares to each other. The prize is a carousel-shaped tin music box, passed between them.

Sophie and Julien's bets start out slight: she has to wear her underwear on the outside; he had to take off your pants in public. Both of them marry other people, but the bets still escalate. Finally there's a fatal wager, with which the film begins and ends.

I wish Cotillard had been more of a waif, in that neither-girl-nor-woman fashion Audrey Tautou had going for her in Amélie. But Cotillard seems sturdy and demanding. Frailty isn't her name. And maybe If destiny demanded that this couple should be together, it was destiny's way of protecting the rest of the world from the pranks of this childish couple.

Love Me If You Dare goes particularly wrong when Samuell pursues suburban life in a long montage that's a variation of the stale joke about the perfect suburban family having 2.3 children and 1.5 cars. Samuell skitters—or skittles—over Julien's bland wife, his possessions, his job. The suburban satire seems a particular low blow, since there's really nothing in the film to which anyone in the suburbs would object. True, so many of our suburban houses turn out to be sarcophaguses of lost romance, but is that entombment different than what Samuell proposes as the perfection of Julien and Sophie's perfect romance?

Like most Skittles, Love Me If You Dare is sour-sweet, contrasting the dark clouds (Julien's mother's death, Sophie's projects, his demanding father) with candy-colored dream sequences. A Tinkerbelle-eye camera swoops over these two star-crossed lovers, and there's an angel. Isn't there always an angel? Maybe it's an angel that pours the candy from the sky.

Love Me If You Dare (R; 94 min.), directed and written by Yann Samuell, photographed by Antoine Roch and starring Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard, opens Friday.

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From the May 26-June 1, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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