French films have long specialized in depicting the impassioned, go-for-broke infatuation known as l'amour fou. Yann Samuell's "Love Me If You Dare" may be the first to investigate l'amour annoying.
Surprisingly, this isn't entirely a bad thing. A playfully cruel lifelong romance about a boy named Julien (Guillaume Canet) and a girl named Sophie (Marion Cotillard), "Love Me" has been filmed in a state of what can only be called post-"Amelie" delirium, with colored filters, absurdist flights of fancy, and a camera that careens around like a toddler on a sugar binge. This apparently wows them in France, where under the title "Jeux d'Enfants" ("Child's Play") the film was a huge hit, and it's certainly fizzy and self-absorbed enough to charm American audiences for whom style is its own reward. Sometimes style is its own reward -- but rarely when a film and its characters are as pleased with themselves as they are here.
Still, "Love Me If You Dare" has the courage of its own callowness, and as a brightly colored Rube Goldberg contraption it's diverting. Julien and Sophie meet in elementary school (where they're played by Thibault Verhaeghe and Josephine Lebas Joly); she is taunted by bullies for being Polish, while his mother (Emmanuelle Gronvold) is dying of cancer. Almost accidentally they fall into a game: Whoever is in possession of a tin box painted like a carousel has to act out a dare.
The challenges underscore their happy alienation from the rest of the world: peeing on the floor in front of the principal, trashing a wedding, disrupting a funeral. "It was a great game -- only no one found it funny," Julien says. If you like movies that get laughs from children talking like sexually precocious miniature grown-ups, step right up. Personally, it gives me the willies.
We cut to adolescence soon enough, where the grown Sophie and Julien are still passing the box, playing pranks on lesser mortals, and dancing around their true feelings toward each other. To more musical variations of Piaf's "La Vie En Rose" than you can keep track of, the couple abuse extraneous boyfriends and girlfriends and drive Julien's father (Gerard Watkins) crazy -- the movie says that true love is self-contained and sadistic toward everyone but the lovers themselves.
Eventually, it consumes them, too. Both Sophie and Julien want to call off the games, but each of them picks exactly the wrong time for soul baring (and, on one amusing occasion, the wrong person). They take a few years off, come back for more humiliation, then retreat to their corners for an even longer period of time. Wives and husbands and children come into the picture, but ultimately they don't matter much.
Samuell overdirects this tale with such phantasmagoric brio that you may be fooled into thinking it's art, especially with a fake-out of a double ending that lets the couple have their cake and eat it too. There are set-piece scenes to remember warmly: a child's Adam and Eve fantasy, a lovely sequence outside a cafe where Julien woos Sophie back in a succession of gently overlapping jump-cuts. At times, all the reckless crashing through narrative walls recalls the memory games in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," and like that film, "Love Me If You Dare" takes place mostly in the headspace young lovers share.
The other movie that kept popping into my mind as I watched "Love Me," though, was Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 masterpiece "Pierrot le Fou," an equally hyperstylized romance with Jean Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina as an equally selfish couple tilting their lances at the world. The difference is that Godard allowed Belmondo's character to doubt -- love, women, art, everything -- while Canet's Julien comes to seem an unbearably smug prat by the film's final act. The film's visuals are as high as a kite, but the stakes are low; you come out feeling stuffed but still hungry. Someday, when Samuell finds something to say, he may make a great movie. For now, he's only playing games.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Love Me If You Dare
Written and directed by: Yann Samuell
Starring: Guillaume Canet, Marion Cotillard, Gerard Watkins, Emmanuelle Gronvold
At: Copley Place, Kendall Square, West Newton
Running time: 94 minutes
Rated: R (language, sexuality)
In French,with subtitles