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by Jay Seaver

"A serial killer movie that twists its knife in different ways."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The almost-banal serial killer isn't quite a staple of crime fiction but it's not exactly uncommon, either, likely in part because the challenge of creating a character who is simultaneously unremarkable and monstrous is fascinating to writers and filmmakers, even if it often only appeals to a relatively specialized audience. That's the case with "Cruel" - it's admirable and intriguing, although the story can be a tough nut to crack and swallow.

The killer in this case is Pierre Tardieu (Jean-Jacques Lelté), a nondescript man of no fixed occupation in Toulouse who has killed a great many victims over the years because he is invisible enough to stalk his prey without being remembered before abducting them and keeping them in a hidden basement for weeks or months, then disposing of the bodies in a way that suggests unrelated disappearances. Recently, though, a couple of things have changed: He has included a number of ID cards with his latest victim, alerting the police to a long-active serial killer in their midst, and the owner of a stationery shop where Tardieu has been buying notebooks since he was a kid introduces him to Laure Ouari (Magali Moreau), a music teacher who appears to stir actual affection in him.

Jean-Jacques Lelté has relatively few screen credits, which is the sort of thing that may help his performance as Pierre; he's a blank slate onto which it is difficult to impose familiar characteristics or motive, and the sparse details among the relative blankness that Lelté and writer/director Eric Cherrière create draws the audience in even more. Lelté plays him as a sort of everyman with just the tiniest bit of exaggeration around the edges in most cases, although his detached and asocial nature is noticeable. Sometimes it just comes off as being bored, though - especially noticeable in contrast to the sense of humor that starts to emerge when the police finally start to suspect him of a crime. He's also got a nice chemistry with Magali Moreau, who makes Laure seem a little more tentative than she actually is.

The best performance in Cruel, though, may be Maurice Poli as Pierre's paralyzed father, a man whose life is already so twisted by pain and helplessness that the torment that comes from being in the care of a serial-killer son must be too much to bear, but he has no choice in the matter. He can't speak, he can barely move, he's trapped just as completely as the people Pierre kidnaps and locks in the hidden basement that Pierre's grandfather used to hide Jews during the war, perverting their family's best legacy. It's a horribly twisted sort of helplessness that Poli makes clear to the audience but which the other characters must be able to miss.

Compared to that, the rest of the film isn't exactly dull - there are riveting moments as Pierre spends time with his victims like this is being social in some way - but that's a difficult intensity to match. Otherwise, Cherrière (a crime novelist as well as a filmmaker) builds a decent story of a serial killer who is successful because he takes great care to be invisible, but does not initially seem to put a hook in to really make it singular. Why is Pierre starting to leave evidence now, just has he begins the romance with Laure? I suspect that it ties in with the film's title - Pierre inflicts a mostly non-physical torture on his victims, isolating them and making them believe that they will have a chance to win their freedom in "last meal" segments that are some of the film's most tense, and perhaps without initially realizing it, he knows that his masterpiece will require his being discovered.

That's my theory, at least; Cherrière plays things close enough to the vest that at times "Cruel" can seem a little more generic than it actually is. It's not a bad example of the subgenre, though, with craftsmanship to rival its main characters' work.

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originally posted: 08/14/15 11:27:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Eric Cherrière

Written by
  Eric Cherrière

  Jean-Jacques Lelté
  Magali Moreau
  Maurice Poli
  Yves Afonso

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