Gorgeous French women litter the landscape of Claude Chabrol's subtle, sinister and utterly implausible A Girl Cut in Two. They're trophy wives who tolerate their womanizing husbands' affairs, society heiresses, hookers, TV talkers and ex-models who are now tres chic publishers.
And the men? Lumpy, older, leering trolls. Except for one rich, fancy-boy poseur. And the women make the most of them. Well, this is French.
This drama about a young woman used and yanked between a rich, accomplished author and a sneering, insufferable heir is loaded with symbolism and is masterfully underplayed. But it promises a payoff it never delivers.
Francois Berl�and is Charles Saint-Denis, a writer of wealth and accomplishment, a figure lionized in Lyons, where he makes his home. For reasons that Chabrol (Madame Bovary) and his screenwriters never make clear, Charles is resented and loathed by Paul (Ben�it Magimel), the bratty heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. Every time Charles shows up in the newspaper or TV, Paul flies into a snit.
One such TV appearance lets Charles meet the adorable weather girl, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), a yummy blonde who has the cheek to admit to him that she "makes it a point never to crack a book." Even though he is old and bald (he says 30 years separate them; I'm guessing 40), she is drawn to his direct approach in seduction. He promises to "teach her." She falls in love. He uses her, lures her to his town apartment (the name on the mailbox is "Paradise"), tosses her aside, then lures her back. Repeatedly.
Paul is taking his shot, too. He lacks the older man's polish or charm. He gets insistent, downright rough with her. Yet still she dates him, on occasion. He is smitten.
Neither romantic connection feels organic and real. Gabrielle's mom may say she's "looking for a daddy," but she gives her tacit approval to her daughter's affair.
There are suggestions of kinkiness here, of a sex club and a jealous lover who says he wants to avenge his lady love but really acts only for himself. Think of this as Eyes Wide Shut without the sex, a tale seemingly inspired by the early 20th-century tangle between wealthy, accomplished architect Stanford White, spoiled rich boy Harry Thaw and the girl who came between them -- Evelyn Nesbit, a scandal replayed in Ragtime.
Sagnier is a winsome presence, a French Brittany Murphy without the Hollywood weight obsession. Berl�and, of last summer's Tell No One and the Transporter movies, is the very picture of French world-weariness. Magimel's Paul makes for a grand blond bantam rooster of aggrieved privilege.
But what Chabrol does with this triangle is predictable. He may promise shocking revelations, motivations for behavior, that he never delivers. Striking settings, tense moments and suggestions of what might go on behind closed doors can feel quietly menacing, or just dated and quaint. He can pull Gabrielle back and forth like a tasty plaything all he wants. He still needs to give us the reason she would allow it.