I love watching Kristin Scott Thomas in French films. For one thing, she’s easier for me to understand than native French speakers, but apart from that, there’s just something about her; she’s so tightly wound, you know that when she does something nasty (A Handful of Dust) or unravels (Leaving), it’s going to be spectacular. This brings me to the 2010 film, Crime d’Amour (Love Crime) from director Alain Corneau.
The film begins as an exploration of the relationship between two women–icy executive Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her younger protegé, Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier). The two women work in the French office of a global corporation which is headquartered in New York. The film opens with a scene of the two women working late at night, but it’s not all work, and Christine’s moves are … how shall I say it … more than a bit inappropriate. This clever scene establishes the subtle power politics between boss and employee. The boss, Christine, in this case, has a certain leeway when it comes to her behaviour, and this leaves Isabelle in the position of being confused by the relationship. Is Christine crossing the line because she sees Isabelle as a protegé, is she trying to be friendly, or is there a sexual undercurrent underfoot? Before there’s an answer to that intriguing question, Philippe (Patrick Mille)– Christine’s homme du jour appears and breaks up the evening. Status wise, Philippe is another underling, and Christine’s choice of man seems to speak volumes of what she wants in a relationship.
On some level, Christine and Isabelle appear to be a study in contrasts. While Christine’s home is sumptuous, elegant and yet still colorfully comfortable, Isabelle’s home is sterile in its meticulous order. This attention to detail makes Isabelle a great employee, and that leads to Christine glibly putting her name on Isabelle’s work. This skullduggery may lead to a promotion for Christine to the New York office. Isabelle doesn’t seem to mind working under Christine’s shadow and allowing her boss to reap all the credit for her work. This changes, however, after Isabelle goes on a business trip with Patrick.
There’s one great moment (before Isabelle goes on that business trip) when Christine advises Isabelle to “do something” with her hair. Isabelle obediently releases her shoulder length blonde hair from a tight bun, and Christine tells her to put it back up. Ouch: the implication is that Isabelle looks bad no matter what she does to herself.
After Christine realises that Isabelle is no longer under her thumb and may jeopardise any potential promotion to New York, Christine begins punishing Isabelle through office confrontations. And Isabelle, the employee, must take these subtle insults or move on to another job, but as the film continues, the insults become more transparent and even more humiliating. Isabelle absorbs a certain amount of humiliation from Christine, and these actions appear to erode at the younger woman’s confidence.
The film moves from the treacherous quagmire of office politics to thriller, and while this is done seamlessly, it’s also a disappointment for this viewer. The film shows Christine’s cruel cat-and-mouse manoeuvres with Isabelle who takes it … up to a point. Crime d’Amour is an unusual film for its exploration of the unique, unfathomable and sometime torturous relationship between boss and employee. Outsiders initially notice nothing, and the tension between the two women is real and untenable, but when the film morphs to thriller, well, it becomes much more predictable and at times the plot stretches credibility. In spite of its faults, however, the film is still good entertainment, and it’s well worth catching.