Persecution: Love As Theater of Cruelty

02/26/2010 9:55 AM |

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Patrice Chereau’s Persecution plays this afternoon and tonight, and again tomorrow afternoon, at Walter Reade Theater as part of the Film Comment Selects series.

Moody building refurbisher Daniel (Romain Duris) is persecuted by a stalker (Jean-Hughes Anglade) who watches him sleep, gets drunk and passes out naked in his place, tacks up photos with Daniel’s face scratched out, and proclaims his love for him. But then, everyone persecutes and is persecuted in the latest from the director of Queen Margot and the bracing Gabrielle. A stranger slaps an innocent, pleasant-faced Métropolitain passenger in the first scene, and the abuse continues from there. Daniel loves Sonia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), but she persists in a cruel aloofness. His old friend Michel (Gilles Cohen) is crippled with depression, which manifests itself in his boorish insufferableness. Even the stalker has it pitiably rough—Daniel is remarkably tolerant of him, but isn’t above literally kicking him to the curb, too.

If they gave awards for making faces, Duris would win for his grumpy, frozen-on scowl, maintained heroically for what seems like the film’s entire running time. His grievances aren’t negligible, but the audience’s fascination with Duris’s attractive moping might not equal Chereau’s. A confusing late revelation about his father’s furtive churchgoing does little to quell your urge to moan “get over yourself” at the tousled perpetual sulker. In brief, Daniel just isn’t pleasurable company. He does brighten up during his regular visits to a nursing home where he volunteers making tea and small talk with the oldsters, and getting some much-needed perspective on his tribulations. The second he leaves, it’s back to scowling.

Persecution is unhurried and episodic, but there are three or four too many episodes, and it begins to drag well before an Antony cover of David Lynch’s “Mysteries of Love” closes it out. The most memorable scene has nothing to do with Daniel’s friends, lover, or stalker—it’s when a man crashes his motorcycle right in front of him, and dazedly refuses help before fainting. The scene (what the kids would call “random”) has a dreamlike quality, and the symbolism isn’t labored, which can’t be said for a final act in which Daniel breaks an ashtray, and he and Sonia work together to pick up the pieces.