[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
MTN 55’s Tracking Shot noted: “Is that the best way? Novelist Patricia Highsmith saw her Strangers on a Train become a film classic under the direction of Alfred Hitchcock, but she rejected Hitch’s offer to direct her This Sweet Sickness. Claude Miller inherits the job.” Aha, but wait. There is a Hitch connection, for this novel was turned into an early episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Compressed into 45 minutes or so and renamed Annabel, it was, as I recall, adapted by Robert Bloch, had Dean Stockwell in the lead and was directed by Paul Henreid. As scripted by Bloch, it was a brisk tale of sexual obsession neatly rounded off by gore and girl-menacing, and it couldn’t be more different from this largely quiet and restrained French version. Where Stockwell’s central character was straightforwardly a nutter about whose eventual apprehension one could feel relief uncomplicated by much affection, the central figure in this movie, played most powerfully and sympathetically (for most of the way) by Gerard Depardieu is an unhappy fellow desperate for perfect love in a prosaic world, and his descent into madness is thus more chilling.
David Martinaud (Depardieu) works in a provincial office and lives alone in one room; he does lots of overtime and saves much of his salary, which must be substantial because he’s secretly used it to buy a luxuriously appointed cottage in the country, near Marsat. He’s done this so that, at the weekend, he can flee the town and be near the woman he loves to distraction, Lise (the book’s Annabelle). There’s one huge problem that he does recognize – namely, that Lise is married to a wealthy local businessman, a pushy type who knows all about him – and a much bigger one that he doesn’t realize: Lise, though fond, is nowhere near being in love with him and never has been. David’s amour fou is swiftly divined by Juliette (Miou-Miou), a girl newly arrived in his office and resident in another room in the same building as David’s town lodging. Since Juliette fancies David sexually, and since this attraction is compounded by compassion for his loneliness and a liking for his old-fashioned reserve, she does her best to break him of his obsession; but when the husband is killed accidentally after a row with him, David goes steeply downhill, his condition worsened by the discovery that Lise has been having an affair with another man. David murders Juliette, fires his cottage and attempts to kidnap Lise, killing her accidentally in so doing. The big change that Claude Miller enforces on the novel is the death of the husband – murdered in the original. This makes the whole subject both more interesting and more difficult, and one should commend Miller’s attempt to make the story more humanly touching, more psychologically subtle. Unfortunately, having set himself this intriguing problem, Miller has failed to solve it.
[editor’s note 2009: spoilers ahead]
The first half of Dites-lui que je l’aime is brilliant: but the second is a mess and the closing quarter-hour or so is little short of disastrous. Being quite innocent of the husband’s death, David is nonetheless suspected by Lise; as she (out of some vague guilt?) grows more distant. he grows more frantic for her love, abominably abuses the girl who truly loves him, and actually becomes as murderous as he has been erroneously supposed to be. This should work interestingly, but Miller lacks either the nerve or the imagination (or both) to present this extremely Hitchcockian situation in an emotionally valid and moving way. We should retain a kind of desperate sympathy for David even at his maddest, but it becomes impossible because of directorial manipulation: Miller is so keen to pile on unlikely events in the name of climactic action that he completely loses sight of character. In the last stages of the film, all we have to go on with regard to compassion for David is Depardieu’s great bespectacled moonface. The actor’s presence does all the work; Miller’s direction makes his aberrant action one-dimensionally shocking and horrid.
More damagingly, Miller has no flair for the sort of hectic melodrama he insists on turning the film into. The movie runs only about 100 minutes but the climax seems to go on forever – not because the suspense is unbearable, but because Miller can’t finish the damn thing off; he seems to have as much difficulty in rounding up a conclusion as, say, Sydney Pollack has in The Yakuza. When David kills Juliette, it’s authentically appalling, the more so because David, now hallucinating, thinks she’s Lise. It’s here that the true nature of his consuming, inhuman passion becomes crystal-clear to him, surely, as well as to us. When the cottage where this takes place catches fire immediately afterwards, we expect David to be destroyed in the blaze, perhaps willingly. But he isn’t, and there’s really no very good reason why not. Lise, as a living human being, has been peripheral to the story, really; the Lise of David’s elaborate fantasy life is quite different from the fairly ordinary real person. Thus, David’s kidnapping and killing of her doesn’t spring from the narrative or the mood of the film, it’s tacked on for what Miller no doubt thought would be a sock finish. The real climax of the film is the death of Juliette, and to prolong the movie after that is a bad plotting error. Also, the false, irrelevant climax takes an age to unwind and concludes bathetically and absurdly, with David having a fantasy of Lise coming back to life and showing a reciprocal passion. This is shown via a truly idiotic piece of reversed film, so that David and Lise come zooming backwards out of the swimming pool into which they’ve fallen. This trick didn’t work in the fantastique context of Superman; as the climax of what’s intended to be a highly dramatic and disturbing thriller, it’s ridiculous, even insulting.
© 1981 Pierre Greenfield
DITES-LUI QUE JE L’AIME (This Sweet Sickness)
Direction: Claude Miller. Screenplay: Claude Miller and Luc Beraud, after the novel by Patricia Highsmith. Cinematography: Pierre Lhomme. Music: Alain Jomy plus Mozart and Schubert.
The players: Gerard Depardieu, Miou-Miou, Claude Pieplu, Dominique Laffin, Jacques Denis, Christian Clavier.