Sunday 14 February 2016

Viewed The Obscure #1: Alléluia

The first of an occasional series in which I watch a film I initially know little or nothing about, in hopes of unearthing a hidden gem. The only rule is that the movie I talk about in each column will be available to buy and/or rent (no point writing about stuff people can't actually see)...

Director: Fabrice Du Welz
Starring: Lola Dueñas, Laurent Lucas, Héléna Noguerra
Running time: 93 mins Country: France/Belgium

Laurent Lucas and Lola Dueñas in Fabrice Du Welz's brutal Alléluia

What is it? A 2014 French-Belgian horror/thriller based loosely on the disturbing case of Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck, the 'Lonely Hearts Killers'. The pair murdered 20 victims between 1947 and '49 in the States, targeting women via lonely hearts ads in newspapers. Alléluia updates the tale, setting it in Belgium and focusing on Gloria (Lola Dueñas), a damaged single mum. She meets suave Michel (Laurent Lucas) online and falls for him after a passionate one-night stand. Unfortunately, it turns out Michel is a conman and, after 'borrowing' money from her, he disappears. Angry and hurt, Gloria tracks the scam artist down and watches as he seduces another woman he clearly intends to rip off. Gloria offers herself up as his accomplice, and the pair concoct a scheme whereby Michel will woo and marry a vulnerable but wealthy woman, before bumping her off and claiming the insurance money. Their plot quickly goes off the rails, however, as insecure Gloria is consumed with sexual jealousy and murderous rage every time Michel gets amorous with one of their victims.

How is the film 'obscure'? Although it was shown at FrightFest back in August 2014, Alléluia didn't get a proper cinema release in the UK. I wouldn't have come across it at all had it not been part of a collection of French films featured on Curzon Home Cinema. 

Alléluia is a meditation on loneliness and betrayal (trailer)

Any good? Most definitely. There have been other films based on this infamous case, including 2006's Lonely Hearts (starring Jared Leto and Salma Hayek) and 1969's acclaimed The Honeymoon Killers, but Alléluia takes the story to far darker places than either of those movies. Director Fabrice Du Welz's film is a heady, mesmerising brew of sexual jealousy and wince-inducing violence, featuring a particularly fine performance from Spanish actress Dueñas as desperate, deranged Gloria, a woman who even Lizzie Borden would tell to 'calm it down a bit'. 

You get no hint of the divorcée's depravity when we first meet her. She works in a mortuary, lives with her young daughter and has to have her arm twisted by a friend into meeting Michel, who she first encounters on a dating website. It isn't long, though, before Gloria abandons her child and throws in her lot with the charismatic conman who performs weird magic rituals so the women he targets "fall for his charms". Gloria's already as mad as a bag of rats - the photos of her ex with his face violently scratched out suggest as much - but there's the slightest hint that maybe Michel used the dark arts to draw her to him, only for it to work rather too well.

Spanish actress Dueñas is superb as damaged divorcée Gloria

Split into four chapters, each named after one of Michel's targets, the film initially floats the idea that Gloria - chapter one - is the victim here. But, by the end, it is she who is in control and Michel very much on the back foot. He creates a monster and reaps the whirlwind. He's scared of Gloria and what she's capable of, and even takes to drugging her so he can engage in his various trysts while she sleeps unaware.  

If Alléluia is anything it's a meditation on the destructive power of loneliness and betrayal. Gloria's a woman who has been laid low by love too many times - it has left her emotionally raw, mentally unstable and spiritually sick. She sees Michel as her last chance to truly connect with someone and is going to hold on to him no matter what, even if it means killing other women. Despite his declarations to the contrary, Michel feels little for her. He sees himself as a latter-day Bogart (he even takes Gloria to see The African Queen), but is really a weak and pathetic specimen who bites off more than he chew and has no idea how to put this particular Pandora back in her box. 

Laurent Lucas is both charismatic and creepy as Michel

The real violence occurs towards the end and its horrible. The pair have inveigled themselves into some kind of friendship with Solange (Héléna Noguerra), a wealthy widow with a big house and young daughter. Of course, Michel falls for her and seems to genuinely enjoy spending time with the child. Gloria discovers the relationship and matters come to a head in a heartbreaking, stomach-turning scene in a barn, the brutality of her actions acting as a counterpoint to and extension of the emotional violence inflicted upon her throughout the rest of the film. 

Alléluia is a tough watch at times but isn't without humour - albeit of the bleak and black-hearted variety. Michel and Gloria's plans are holed below the water from the very beginning because neither is capable of the kind of cool-headedness required to see them through. Despite promising not to, Michel always beds the women they target, something which drives Gloria crazy with jealousy. Twice we see her leap from the shadows like a howling demon to smite Michel's latest conquest mid-coitus. The first time it's shocking, the second time - when she assails her victim with a shoe - you can't help but laugh at the utter bloody insanity of it all. Of course, with their victim dead, the plan is ruined, the body cut up and dumped. Posing as a brother and sister, they then move on to their next target. Compared to this pair, Bonnie and Clyde were the height of criminal professionalism.

Tiny hints of the supernatural flit in and out of director Du Welz's film

With its faint echoes of Fatal Attraction - about another mentally-unstable, love-sick woman who finds it impossible to let go of a man who treats her like dirt - I wondered at times if Alléluia was misogynistic. There's certainly a hint of it. Gloria has had her life ruined by untrustworthy, disloyal males but is still desperate to land 'Mr Right' regardless. In lieu of that, she's happy just to have an emotionless void like Michel in her life. When that doesn't work out either, she lashes out - not at Michel but at the women he beds. On the surface, Gloria is a complex character but she really isn't - she's a doormat-turned-bunny boiler and it's only Dueñas's fine performance that rescues her from being more than a little cartoonish.

Despite that one criticism, ultimately there's an awful lot to like here. I've already heaped fulsome praise on Dueñas but Lucas is excellent, too; an unsettling, unreadable presence at once charismatic but utterly creepy. I also loved Manuel Dacosse's noirish, claustrophobic cinematography, and the way in which tiny slivers of the supernatural flit in and out of the film. Love, it seems to suggest, is like a powerful spell or magical ritual; one that in the wrong hands can be destructive, devastating and tip the unwary over the edge into madness. Happy Valentine's Day.

Where can I see it? Alléluia is available on DVD from amazon, but you can also cheaply stream it via amazon Prime and Curzon Home Cinema. 

Rating: WWW½

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

Coming soon: Queen Of Earth

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