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Does crime pay? In the world of François Ozon’s fluffy period farce, it certainly can. When aspiring actress Madeleine Verdier (Nadia Tereszkiewicz) visits a famous producer’s house, the meeting goes badly, and she leaves with an awful story of the man’s attempted assault. She tells all to her fellow down-and-out roommate, best friend, and aspiring lawyer Pauline Mauléon (Rebecca Marder) the moment she returns. Before long, Madeleine is accused of carrying out the man’s murder, and when it seems she can escape “justice” quicker by confessing to the crime, she does, setting off an even funnier chain of events that brings in the real killer, a faded silent film star named Odette Chaumette (Isabelle Huppert), back to the spotlight.
“The Crime is Mine” marks a return to comedy for the prolific French director, who spent many of the last few years creating dramas like “Summer of 85” and “Frantz.” Reuniting with his "8 Women" star Huppert and the dynamic Tereszkiewicz and Marder, Ozon creates a fantasy world of gorgeous 1930s gowns, Art Deco luxury, and of course, a corrupt court and gullible public that’s thrown into a frenzy by Madeleine’s supposed crime. Ozon creates dizzying comedy out of a court that supposedly sides with the plight of women, when in reality their support is not always so. As part of Madeleine’s explanation of the crime and Pauline’s defense of it, they plead to the goodness of sisterhood and solidarity, arguing against the ways men have exploited them and kept them at the edge of losing their home and good names. The tactic works, but only to a point, because when Huppert’s Odette comes to collect her slice of the sisterhood, she threatens to expose Madeleine and Pauline as frauds.
Ozon, who also wrote the film, whips up a frothy story of murder, romance, blackmail, girl power, and a little bit of old French film history. It’s an escapist sort of frivolity that delights in bad behavior, decadent costumes and lavish sets, like a farcical version of “Chicago” minus the musical numbers. Cinematographer Manuel Dacosse works within a palette of macaroons, from eye-catching pastels to delicious mauves and teals, under golden tones of light that evoke a sense of the romantic past between Ozon’s screwball comedy beats. Not all of it works; but even when something seems off, the movie never dawdles, springing back up to move on to the next scene.
The trio of women who lead the movie do an impeccable job of keeping the energy silly yet vibrant. As the wide-eyed ingenue Madeleine, Tereszkiewicz registers innocence, yet is smart enough to outwit her enemies. Marder’s Pauline is even sharper, arguing her way out of everything from eviction to her client’s jail sentence. The pair share a “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”-like dynamic, with some longing glances that hint that perhaps Pauline is more into Madeleine than Madeleine is of Pauline. Madeleine’s main affection belongs to Andre (Édouard Sulpice), the most clueless character in the cast. She adores him despite it. Huppert, on the other hand, charges in as Odette in every scene like a villainous diva, a cross between Sarah Bernhardt and Norma Desmond. She bats every line like a spike into the ground, leaving the scene of each conflict like a lioness licking her lips after a satisfying kill. She gives the film new life just when it seems like everything could fall into place a tad too neatly.
As silly as Ozon’s “The Crime is Mine” may be, the French farce is still wildly entertaining. Somehow, murder improves Madeleine’s life in comical ways. Ozon has a ball poking fun at a corrupt justice system that shuffles one criminal to the next crime-out-of-convenience and imagines how public opinion would fashion Madeleine into a feminist symbol. Tereszkiewicz and Marder embrace their characters and their rapport with each other, but it’s Huppert who relishes her character’s crime as a license to steal every one of her scenes.
Opens on December 25th.
Nadia Tereszkiewicz as Madeleine Verdier
Rebecca Marder as Pauline Mauléon
Isabelle Huppert as Odette Chaumette
Fabrice Luchini as Judge Gustave Rabusset
Dany Boon as Mr Palmarède
André Dussollier as Mr Bonnard
Jean-Christophe Bouvet as Mr Montferrand
Édouard Sulpice as André Bonnard
Régis Laspalès as Investigator Mr Brun