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When we first see Celine (Anais Demoustier), the wise-beyond-her-years teenager who forms the chaotic focal point of writer/director Olivier Coussemacq’s Sweet Evil (2010), she’s literally looking in from the outside: specifically, we see her framed in such a way that she appears to be physically separating the couple of Henri (Pascal Greggory) and Nathalie Van Eyck (Ludmila Mikael) as they dine at their kitchen table, unaware of their hidden observer. It’s a smart, canny bit of cinematography and one that will be repeated to good effect throughout the dark, thorny narrative. Indeed, throughout the course of the film, Celine will handily succeed in ripping the troubled couple to shreds, using them as pawns in a game of her own devising, although this is anything by a one-player: Henri and Nathalie, in the end, have just as much a hand in their inevitable destruction as Celine does. In a world of gray, with no heavily defined sense of morality, we see that everyone is capable of evil: whether a supposedly innocent young girl or a theoretically incorruptible judge, humanity is always but a hairbreadth away from its own absolute destruction.

Without a doubt, Celine is quite the complicated character. When not shaking down perverted older men with the aid of her male accomplish, Romain (Sylvain Dieuaide), she wiles away her time in the garden house of the well-to-do but aloof Van Eycks. The jig is up, in a way, when Henri happens to catch Celine on the property one night: she tells him that she’s a 16-year-old foster child who’s run away from her foster home, although this conflicts with her earlier admission to a wannabe john that she’s actually 14. With a little reverse-psychology and a whole lot of manipulation, Celine wheedles her way into the judge’s good graces, although she seems to have a bit of an agenda that extends beyond finding a roof, four walls and a hearty meal. Indeed, Celine tips her hand fairly early when she “innocently” proclaims that being a judge must be nice, since people respect the law, but wonders how many innocent people have been unfairly locked away. What if, she reasons to Henri, life has really left them no choice? There’s always a choice, Henri snorts back. As we’ll come to see, this is absolutely true, although clarification may be necessary: there may always be choices but they aren’t always good ones.

As Celine insinuates herself into the Van Eyck household, she stirs a hornets’ nest of repressed desire, barely concealed anger, resentment and misplaced parental instincts. She plays the couple against each other by appealing to each partner’s basest needs: Henri desires her, sexually, while Nathalie seeks to mother her as substitute for her own inability to have children (in a telling bit of character development, the childless Nathalie is obsessed with dolls, although Celine complains that they all look like “old dead children” to her).

It turns out that Celine has a plan, however, a rather diabolical scheme that involves Henri, her incarcerated mother and the increasingly unstable Romain, a young man whose favorite hobby involves stabbing innocent dogs. As Celine moves everything towards her end game, Henri’s weakness may spell the couple’s doom, while Nathalie’s ferocious desire to be a mother may mark her evolution into something other than Henri’s “faithful spouse.”

Tone-wise, Coussemacq’s film certainly recalls the work of misanthropic German filmmaker Michael Haneke, in particular his most famous film, Funny Games (1997). There’s an austere severity and frigidity to the film that nearly constant, a solemn tone that seems to be heightened by the almost playful musical score. The world of Sweet Evil is a cold one, all arctic whites, blues and chilly winter sunlight: in certain ways, the film’s look serves as a compliment to Tomas Vinterberg’s equally chilly The Hunt (2012). As previously mentioned, Alexis Kavyrchine’s cinematography is consistently exceptional, serving up not only beautifully staged images but also expanding on the film’s themes by way of the imagery: Kavyrchine has a particular way of shooting the trio of Henri, Nathalie and Celine that always manages to place one person between the other two, a perfect visual representation of the characters’ inner conflicts.

Coussemacq’s script, like Kavyrchine’s cinematography, is exceptionally smart: one of my favorite sustained bits was the notion that all of Celine’s lies end up being halfway between reality and fiction. It’s an idea that’s made explicit regarding her age (she introduces herself to the first john as being 14, tells Henri that she’s 16 but is actually 15) but is revealed in other, more subtle ways throughout the narrative. Coussemacq also has a particular way with dialogue, giving Demoustier plenty of choice lines to chew on. The development of Nathalie’s character was also quite impressive, particular given that the disparate elements of her personality could easily have across as “movie-shorthand” but feel much more organic than that. Her work with women’s rights parallels nicely with Celine’s more dastardly machinations and allows for a nice sense of evolution in the third act. Craft-wise, Sweet Evil is top-notch filmmaking.

While the cast is generally good, Demoustier is pretty impressive as the less-than-innocent waif: she has a way with subtle facial expressions and vocal inflections that manages to reveal hidden dimensions within her character. Most impressively, the 27-year-old actress is pretty convincing as a 15-year-old, no mean feat in itself (just ask any of the middle-aged “teenagers” that frolicked through most ’80s slasher flicks). Demoustier manages to walk a fine line between playing Celine as a hard-edged loner, a dutiful daughter and a confused teenager: one of the better aspects of Sweet Evil is the way in which Celine’s ultimate character is left up for the audience’s interpretation. Viewed from various angles, it’s possible to see Celine as a cold-blooded criminal, the shattered product of abuse, a victim of the welfare system and a wiser-than-her-years “emotional con-artist.”

Ultimately, Sweet Evil is an atmospheric, well-acted and appropriately thorny (if occasionally confusing) film, the kind of movie, like The Hunt, that gives one plenty of food for thought once the final credits have rolled. If the film offers no easy answers, particularly regarding the character of Henri (it becomes exceedingly difficult to fully sympathize with Henri once one sits through the scene where he tries to sneak a peek at Celine’s sleeping body), it also offers plenty of interesting characters, a quick pace and a climax that handily splits the difference between tragic and ironic. I’m still not really sure how I feel about Celine, although I must admit to being completely swept up by her self-assurance: when she believes in herself that much, it’s kind of hard not to feel the same way, regardless of her ultimate goal.

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