By Gary M. Kramer.
Another penetrating examination of sex and crime, love and death, Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr’s compelling American Translation picks up thematically where their previous effort, One to Another ended. This striking new film confirms the directors’ insistence on making daring, challenging films about sexual, mental, emotional, and physical control.
A French twist on the couple-on-the-run and road movie genres, American Translation has the handsome wanderer Chris (Perrier)—a young man as unruly as his hair—meeting rich Aurore (Brocheré) in a hotel. [The actors also played lovers in One to Another.] They share a passionate, ravenous kiss in the bathroom, and soon head out for sex and adventure in his Peugeot van. Their romance is immediate and intense—they quickly hold a wedding ceremony and tattoo a “ring” on her finger—because “something deep” connects them.
The passion between Chris and Aurore is palpable, not only as evidenced in their naked couplings, but also as reflected by cinematographers Barr and Chris Keohane, who film them with a handheld camera that adds an effective layer of intimacy. Barr and Keohane capture Chris’ seductive appeal, and Aurore’s unwavering devotion—most notably in a showstopping and extremely erotic/explicit striptease that is sure to arouse a response from viewers.
The couple’s amorous bliss, however, is soon disrupted when the dark side of Chris’ personality suddenly emerges. He makes it painfully clear to Aurore that he doesn’t like her talking to other guys. And, he soon reveals, he likes picking up, kissing, and “cuddling” young male prostitutes—whom he also kills. Aurore sometimes help dispose of the body.
That Aurore doesn’t flee after witnessing Chris’ hinky behavior is a narrative leap in logic that American Translation also asks viewers to make. Many won’t, but those who do will find this provocative, disturbing drama fascinating.
Chris both hints at—and even confesses—why he has his violent impulses. The vague clues—a friend’s suicide, a relationship with his priest, and the sexual thrill he gets hitting women—are not necessarily justifiable, and perhaps offensive, but American Translation isn’t concerned with propriety. The film is an exploration of the nature of good and evil, free will, and the death of innocence. Arnold and Barr’s complex investigation of character resists ascribing any one, real/true meaning to Chris’ (or Aurore’s) actions.
The film posits the lovers as rebels, fighting/fearing a “normal” life of quiet despair. Her complicity is as much an acceptance/understanding of her “husband”—whom she “married” for better or worse—as it is a release from her bourgeoisie life with her rich, estranged father (Barr), who is trying to bond with her.
That American Translation features a meandering narrative that eschews dramatic tension may frustrate viewers, but the film builds to a surprisingly taut conclusion.
Arnold and Barr certainly coax brave performances from the two leads. Perrier is simply mesmerizing here, using his physical allure to entice viewers and his vulnerability to engender sympathy. Brocheré has the harder role—she mostly reacts/responds to Chris’ odd behavior—but her piercing eyes and telling body language skillfully convey her expressions of fear and desire.
American Translation will either excite or enrage viewers, but those very qualities—Chris’s, in fact—are what give the film its dubious charm, and its power.
Gary M. Kramer is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews. He wrote about Jean-Marc Barr and Pascal Arnold’s Free Trilogy for issue 5.5 (2007) of Film International.