Cinema Signal:

The Dance of Wounded Souls

. "Love Me if you Dare" (aka, Jeux D'Enfants)

Comparing this fateful love story with "Romeo and Juliet," the enemy of the protagonist-lovers is not their feuding families as in Shakespeare's tragedy, but each other. The instrument of mortality isn't a knife but a game. And when the game that was so much fun as children develops a competition that rules over trust and developing emotions, the game wins. Or so director Yann Samuell wants us to buy into.

As an 8-year old, Julien (Thibault Verhaeghe) can't accept his mother's (Emmanuelle Gronvold) mortality as her cancer steals her life away. It devastates him and his reality when she finally passes and he loses the parent he was closest to and needed most. He focuses his energy away from his heartbreak and, when 8-year old Sophie (Josephine Lebas Joly) becomes his playmate, her mischievous imagination leads them both into a world of amusement. That world includes destructive pranks and dirty words in class, each the response to a game of "Dare."

Visually symbolizing the state of the game, a colorful tin box that Julien's mother gave him as a parting gift, passes from one to the other as they take on the dare. The possessor of it is obliged to increase the level of the prank, making it more unexpected, riskier, ever more irreverant and scandalous.

At college age, Julienne (Guillaume Canet) and Sophie (Marion Cotillard) are involved with other people but continue the game. By now, the level of invention and psychic damage is a barrier to trust that becomes more impregnable with each "Gotcha!" The emotional tie they feel for each other, which we sense could trump any other in their respective lives, is never verbally expressed. Julienne nearly chokes on his tongue when he tries. They have become emotional cripples in a state of monk-like denial.

The portrayal of this process is rich in detail and talent even as its focus on unfulfillment becomes exhausting and hopeless. In his showcase of cleverness, writer-director Yann Samuell finds every shaded note that will support his premise, but it results in increasing audience estrangement. Every failure of the couple to connect emotionally draws blood from the body of the story. What started out as warm, compelling drama contrives its way to something cold and antiseptic. The residue of interest is fascination with the eventual outcome between the uncompromising pair, but there's little feeling left for a relentless study in mutual self-destruction.

It may be a finely made exercise in the futility of gameplaying, and praise should be heaped on both sets of actors involved, children and adult, but daring is not a replacement for caring. In the end, our lovers' flaw is the quicksand of misplaced priorities they've stepped into, and getting stuck in emotional limbo. Samuell's was in making it a gloomy and calculating exercise in despair rather than a credible experience. Shakespeare had it right and did it better.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Thibault Verhaeghe and Josephine Lebas Joly
A relationship in the making and the losing

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