Alleluia (2014)

*. A nurse. The most terrifying figure in all of modern life. A bureaucratic guardian at the gates of life and death. A dark fetish stereotype, invasive and maternal. Helpless in our hospital beds, they have us at their mercy. As the film begins she moves her hands over a male corpse, the camera not sparing us the puddle of pubic hair and terminal flacidity. Then she looks at the camera. At us. With a look that says . . . what? You see what I have done? To this end you must come. You’re next. I’m not fucking around.
*. I really like Alleluia, a French-Belgian co-production directed by Fabrice Du Welz. It’s based on the true crime story of the 1940s Lonely Hearts Killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, which was most famously filmed as The Honeymoon Killers (1960). But it is so bold a reimagining of the events that it made me all but forget its earlier treatments.
*. It’s a harsher tale than The Honeymoon Killers. For starters, it’s closer to the events it’s based on in a couple of uncomfortable ways. The Martha character (named Gloria here) is a divorced woman with a daughter (Martha Beck had two children). Also, the real Martha Beck did start her career as an undertaker’s assistant, preparing bodies for funeral.
*. But what really sets it apart from The Honeymoon Killers, at least for me, is the absence of any campy humour.
*. This is a point that I think I have to expand on. I was surprised when reading reviews of Alleluia to find so many references to it as a horror comedy full of black humour. Did I miss something? The Honeymoon Killers is a horror comedy. Martha eating her bon-bons in bed and Ray swishing his ass in our face make them into comic stereotypes as much as they are real people. Their victims are also quite deliberately sent up. The miserly lady taking them to dinner at the cafeteria is only the funniest example. Piety and patriotism both get the satiric boots put to them.
*. Where is there any of this in Alleluia? I find it telling that the only scene that people seem to agree on finding funny is the one where Gloria can’t stop herself from laughing at how Michel is stringing along the Catholic lady, but she (the Catholic lady) isn’t a comic figure is she? The grasping priest is, a bit, but he’s only a one-liner.
*. There’s a bizarre operatic interlude where Gloria sings over a victim’s corpse that has a Sweeney Todd sort of air to it, but I found it more weird than funny. It seems a bit like the bizarre dance at the pub in Calvaire, and in any event it’s a one-off.
*. You might just convince me that there’s something comic about Gloria’s rapid degradation from introverted professional woman to an almost pre-verbal idiot sibling on a hair trigger for hormonal meltdowns. But even here I thought the presentation more disturbing and realistic than comic, even with Pedro Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas in the role.
*. I wonder if, given the times we live in, some people look at any sort of extreme cruelty and laugh at it to show either how tough they are or how they’re in on whatever the joke is supposed to be. But I also grant that I may be missing something.
*. The cinematography by Manuel Dacosse received a lot of praise, but I have reservations about the film’s look. It has a gritty documentary feel akin to The Honeymoon Killers, albeit achieved through different techniques (grainy film, jarring editing, uncomfortable close-ups), but Dacosse, who also shot the stylish Amer, sometimes seems to be trying too hard. In particular I don’t understand the fascination with shooting through various obstructions, like a dirty window, a curtain, or a partially closed door. This is rarely a good idea, and yet people keep doing it.

*. One place, however, where I think this obstructed view really does work, because it means something, is in the scenes where we go back and forth between Gloria and Michel in the restaurant during their first date, and then later in bed. In both scenes we only see half of the face of either, the other half being blocked as though in eclipse by the other’s head in the foreground.
*. This works because it makes a point. Gloria and Michel complete each other, as the old saying goes. They are two halves of the same being. They each have a bright, smiling side and a dark, mysterious interior. We never see all of either of them.
*. In praise of great sound effects: note the wet thunk as the axe strikes Solange’s arm. That’s so good you don’t mind that you don’t actually see the axe striking her.
*. Is the violence what makes it so raw? No, it’s the sex. In particular, it’s middle-aged women who don’t all look like models and who are horny. How often do you see that? Even in The Honeymoon Killers the women were caricatures, and their loneliness didn’t have much of a sexual component to it.
*. Most of all, however, what drives this movie are the two lead performances by Laurent Lucas and Lola Dueñas. They both manage to be weird without being cartoonish psycho stereotypes. It’s not often such characters have depth and come across as real people, but here they do. I don’t find them sympathetic, but they do come across as individuals being driven by urges they don’t understand and can’t control. That’s all on them, as it isn’t so much something in the script as it is in their faces.
*. There have been a lot of movies that have explored the folie à deux theme, from Gun Crazy through The Honeymoon Killers and Badlands up to the present day. I think Alleluia can take its place with all of these. Despite taking as inspiration a vintage crime it still manages to be contemporary: explosive, direct, and disturbingly gritty. There’s life in these old bones yet.

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