As inevitable as a new day comes another François Ozon film––accomplishing the deft task of feeling equally breezy and clever, but never clearing an overall low ceiling of quality. Maintaining this pattern is The Crime Is Mine (whose awkwardly translated international title makes more sense in light of seeing the film), an Ozon which surprisingly skipped much of the international festival circuit and thus the critical corps’ frustration with his sometimes glib efficiency; it was a commercial-enough proposition to go straight to theaters, with a strong appeal to an older segment of the audience.

Which is not to say his latest film is overly lightweight; in its own way, this is a film of ideas––concerned with nascent 20th-century women’s liberation, and also musing on cinema and performance––however much production design and sparkling lighting dress it up to look like a pink-frosted cake in the window of a French patisserie. Yet, with its ’30s Parisian setting and the dinner theatre-pitch of its performances, there’s an over-reliance on pastiche, leaving everything in veritable quotation marks. There’s also a self-satisfied tidiness to the script’s trajectory, although some darkly funny lines provide compensation.

It’s also self-consciously an effort to provide a star vehicle and showcase for Nadia Tereszkiewicz and Rebecca Marder as its co-leads; with the former in particular touted by the French industry as its next great comédienne––a successor to Deneuve, Binoche and indeed Isabelle Huppert, also granted a self-referential supporting role here. Tereszkiewicz is Madeleine Verdier, a struggling actress being investigated for the murder of the powerful theatre producer Montferrand (Jean-Christophe Bouvet, mainly seen in flashbacks outfitted in a square black-and-white ratio, like a French comedy of that era); she was last seen returning from his palatial residence in Neuilly, with numerous pieces of evidence pointing to her culpability. 

Yet Madeleine counters with testimony that Montferrand violently forced himself upon her, as discussions for a potential theatre role went sour––a Harvey Weinstein scenario convincingly placed in this historical context––and then murdered him in self-defense. Marder, as Pauline Mauléon––a struggling law school graduate herself, her roommate, and maybe a surreptitious lover––acts as her legal defense, and an attractive, galvanizing narrative is constructed by which Madeleine proudly owns her murder: a defiant razing of patriarchal control with gender roles then so constrained, and women’s suffrage still a decade away. Ozon savors the irony where an ostensible “crime” committed by a woman is the only force propelling her away from previous ill fortune: gifts, career offers, magazine covers, and professional fame are the happy outcome. 

Although it leaves pleasingly ambiguous what actually occurred amidst Montferrand’s demise, Madeleine is also “acting” to give a convincing public front to her claims, cementing her new persona as a folk hero and celebrity. Still, by affixing himself to this upswell of liberation, Ozon also forces his heroines into “girlboss” territory, the contemporary accusation that these emancipatory steps ring hollow and actually reinforce prejudice. There’s a tension The Crime Is Mine doesn’t quite resolve––unlike the uplifting Hollywood depression-era comedies that inspired it––between grim social analysis, and upturning that reality for audience-pleasing wish fulfillment.

The Crime Is Mine opens in limited release on December 25 and will expand.

Grade: B-

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