Ludivine Sagnier and Kristin Scott Thomas are the reasons to watch Love Crime, Alain Corneau's overly convoluted tale of corporate one-upmanship and murder. The final film from the Tous les Matins du Monde director imagines the business world as a succession of cruel power plays and double-crosses staged in hyper-modern offices whose icy chic mirrors Corneau's own cruel precision. But the film is less corporate parable than intricately crafted revenge drama whose intensively detailed plotting can't hide the fact that the whole thing seems like a lot of work for a glaringly modest payoff.
"Human beings are so complicated," concludes the judge in charge of the film's murder case, though in Corneau's universe they're really not. Characters may show signs of humanity, and some of these may actually be genuine, but mostly everyone's out to get what they can. In a world of high-stakes corporate striving, the cruelest player of them all is Christine (Thomas), senior executive at a multinational whose purpose seems to consist of winning contracts and then subcontracting them out. A shrewd operator, she reaches out to her protégé Isabelle (Sagnier) with promises of friendship—even perhaps, sexual availability—only to steal the younger woman's ideas and claim them as her own. Her face a perennially icy mask, Thomas clearly relishes playing the villain, never missing a beat when she explains in what sound like eminently reasonable terms her vicious double-crosses to Isabelle.
But it's Sagnier who's asked to carry the emotional weight of the film's many twists (shifting from vulnerable semi-naïf willing to do what it takes to win the older woman's acceptance, to wily double-crosser and criminal, to seemingly unstable pill-popping loony and back to shrewd manipulator who finally makes Christine look like a small-timer), all of which the actress sells with consummate ease, even when her behavior seems inexplicably inconsistent. But nothing's really inexplicable (or inconsistent) in Corneau's world and it's his need to explain every action that finally marks the film as more tiresome exercise in plotting than psychologically astute crime drama.
After suffering a final humiliation from her sadistic boss, Isabelle—spoiler!—sneaks into Christine's house and stabs her in the chest, all the while seeming to painstakingly prepare both a series of alibis and a string of evidence to incriminate herself. Breaking down before the judge, she confesses to the crime. What's Isabelle up to? It doesn't take us long to figure out, even as Corneau milks the alleged suspense for what it's worth. There's no question there's plenty of enjoyment in watching Sagnier put on her show both for us and all the other film's characters, but the plotting seems too much investment and Isabelle's brief moment of amoral triumph too little return to justify the extensive lead-up. That Sagnier is able to suggest instances of genuine vulnerability amidst all the fakery prevents Corneau's film from being simply a cynical tale of the ultimate corporate ladder-climbing scheme, but its elongated joke-punch line structure and obvious commentary on the ruthlessness of the business world ensures that Love Crime doesn't escape that characterization by too much.