The master manipulators in Love Crime, a French thriller about dueling executives, work together in a multinational company that specializes in agribusiness. In the scheme of things, it really doesn't matter what the company manufactures or trades, or what specific investments or acquisitions it chooses to make. This is a film about the cold-blooded sharks at the top of the corporate food chain -- and the more generic the business, the more universal it's likely to seem.
And yet there are limits. The characters in Love Crime could talk about the sales projections of left-handed widgets, and it would hardly be more distracting than the stilted gibberish that passes for corporate-speak here. Spread out over nondescript, industrial-white spaces, the office feels conspicuously artificial; it might have been designed by an art school student who learned about big business from watching Wall Street on cable. Open laptop screens are filled with colorful bar graphs, international video conferences have the chintzy quality of Chatroulette, and deals over vaguely defined products are said to increase the company's value by a staggering 15 to 20 percent.
To be fair, veteran director Alain Corneau (in his final film) and co-writer Nathalie Carter aren't interested in making an agribusiness thriller like The Informant. But the lack of authenticity underlines the thinness of their conceit: Without a plausible backdrop, all that's left of Love Crime are the power games between two duplicitous women and the serpentine plotting that results. And even that, under the slightest scrutiny, frays like a thin layer of tissue paper.
The opening scenes show some promise, as top executive Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) dictates the terms of her latest deal to Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier), a rising-star protege she treats more like a personal assistant. Working after hours at her beautifully appointed home, Christine forces an intimacy on Isabelle that the latter, as an underling, has to accept with an awkward smile, even as the dynamic clearly makes her uncomfortable. Though Corneau and Carter amplify Christine's emotional manipulation, they expose an unsettling dynamic -- one all too conceivable in a working world where employees are utterly dependent on their bosses' whims.
Like Sigourney Weaver's character in Working Girl, Christine makes a habit out of taking credit for Isabelle's ideas, but their partnership collapses when the former uses her lover (Patrick Mille), the shady company accountant, to inflict maximum emotional damage. Reeling from her boss' vicious betrayal, Isabelle stiffens her spine and devises an intricate and startling revenge plot. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game meant to reflect the raw savagery of the corporate world.
The outlines of Isabelle's plan are ingenious: Everyone in the company knows she's an emotional wreck, so she encourages them to think she's gone off the deep end while she schemes with icy lucidity. Yet too many things have to go exactly right for the plan to work; if they don't, the brief jail time she factors into the equation could become permanent. Pull on the many loose threads in this plot, and the whole tapestry starts to unravel.
Even if Corneau and Carter had orchestrated Isabelle's plan to perfection, Love Crime would have still strayed too far from its original mission statement. Black comedies -- the infamous Fox TV show Profit, for instance, or the wicked Michael Caine vehicle A Shock to the System -- can tautly relate cutthroat business to the business of cutting throats. But Love Crime isn't as well integrated. Between a company that seems fake and a plot that twists itself into oblivion, the metaphor goes missing. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.