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A Girl Cut in Two (8/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 114 minutes.

There are at least two words that will get me to go to a movie, and actually pay my way in. Those words are Ludivine Sangier. She is not only uncommonly beautiful and doffs her shirt a lot, but is an accomplished actress, having appeared in 30 films since her debut at the age of 10.

78-year-old French filmmaker Claude Charbrol, who was a charter member of the French New Wave, along with Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and Éric Rohmer, is no dummy. He grabbed lovely Ludivine for  this, his latest offering. Chabrol, who directed and co-wrote the script with Cécile Maistre, took the sensational events of the tawdry early 20th-Century love triangle among elderly New York architect Sanford White, wealthy Harry K. Thaw, and Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit, a beautiful young actress, as the basis for his story.

But that’s just the basis. He moved the location to Lyon, France, changed White’s profession from architect to famous writer, Charles Saint-Denis (Francois Berleand), moved the era to the present, and changed Nesbit from an actress to a comely TV personality, Gabrielle Aurore Deneige (Sangier).

The result is a compelling portrait of a young woman who is emotionally torn asunder by a man she loves, Saint-Denis, and the rich playboy, Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel), who covets her. Sangier presents a touching portrait of a woman caught hopelessly in the middle, thrown into events that burst out of control.

The premise, that a beautiful, talented young woman in her 20s could become so infatuated with a grey-haired old man like Charles, is dubious, at best. The story goes to great pains to emphasize that Gabrielle is not after his money. But Charles must have something unseen to the naked eye because he lives openly in another triangle with his permissive wife, Dona (Valeria Cavalli), and his mistress.

I can never take my eyes of Sangier when she’s onscreen, and she gives a luminous performance as the young beauty, once gay and carefree, but slowly descending into depression. But Magimel gives a truly exceptional performance as Gabrielle’s unbalanced suitor/husband. His portrayal of a dissolute young man who becomes almost maniacally smitten with Gabrielle is acutely unerring. Unfortunately, she feels the same way about Saint-Denis.

All the main actors give riveting performances, but a supporting actress who really stands out is Caroline Sihol, who plays Paul’s domineering, calculating mother, Geneviève Gaudens.

There are a lot of Chabrols involved in this. In addition to Claude, Matthieu Chabrol wrote the original music, Aurore Chabrol was script supervisor, and Thomas Chabrol has an acting credit. I guess the old man is keeping his family ensconced in Euros. In French.

September 7, 2008