REVIEW: Kristin Scott Thomas and Ludivine Sagnier Play Workplace Power Games in Love Crime

Movieline Score: 7

An executive and an underling are working late in a plushly appointed living room at the start of Love Crime, a twisty French drama about office competition and revenge that's the final film from director Alain Corneau, who passed away last year. The exec treats the other employee in a way that would send any real-world worker running off to gather evidence for a sexual harassment lawsuit -- invading the young woman's personal space, telling her how pretty she looks when she smiles, leaning into her throat to smell traces of her perfume.

The junior employee, the meek but driven Isabelle Guérin, is played by Ludivine Sagnier, and her boss, Christine, by Kristin Scott Thomas, and despite this provocative introduction Love Crime isn't some Sapphic French answer to Disclosure. Isabelle and Christine are locked together in a workplace partnership/battle complicated enough to make any physical entanglement beside the point. In the stylized corporate environment the film creates, learning enough from your mentor to destroy her and take her place is tantamount to an act of appreciation.

Love Crime isn't the first film in which Corneau's explored the intersection of workplace interactions and S&M-worthy routines of humiliation and domination. His 2003 adaptation of Amélie Nothomb's novel Fear and Trembling had Sylvie Testud playing a young Belgian woman hired as translator in a Japanese firm. Her failure to grasp the complicated hierarchies of the company structure and cultural office standards draws the ire of her supervisor Ms. Mori, who punishes her with an excruciating series of embarrassingly menial assignments. Love Crime's pairing of department head and aspiring up-and-comer isn't in such obviously dire straights, because the meticulous Isabelle seems to be content to supplicate herself to her job and the capricious, alternately undercutting and fond whims of the woman to whom she reports -- at least in the beginning.

Christine is prone to doing nice things like gifting Isabelle with a scarf she admires, or whisking her off to a cocktail party to charm her with lessons on how to network. But she also invites Isabelle into her office to listen as she takes sole credit for the younger woman's work on a conference call, and sends her to handle a deal in Cairo in what she claims is an act of good faith and benevolence, only for it later to be revealed as calendar-clearing to make time for a weekend dalliance. Some of her manipulations seem simply born out of caprice or curiosity, as when she sends her sometimes lover Philippe (Patrick Mille) on that business trip with Isabelle, giving the two unspoken permission to hook up -- which they do.

The unstable relationship between Christine and Isabelle is forever unbalanced when Isabelle's own underling Daniel (Guillaume Marquet) passes her a project that's not on her boss' radar, and she jumps on the opportunity to set up a deal for which she has to receive full credit. Furious about the runaround and no longer having someone under her thumb, Christine declares war on her former girl Friday, using Philippe to embarrass Isabelle at an office party and sending herself threatening e-mails from the girl's computer to use as evidence against her. And Isabelle strikes back, and the film shifts, just over halfway through, from being the record of an abusive workplace relationship to being one about a carefully planned crime.

Love Crime loses much of its oomph with the change in focus, though Isabelle's complicated, roundabout scheme to have her revenge and not get caught provides an interesting reverse to everything that's come before. After being presented as, under a meek exterior, someone just as voracious and ambitious as her cutthroat boss (even her bedrooms scenes with Philippe find her all but throwing him down and tearing his clothes off), Isabelle's arrangement to get away with the transgression she commits rests on appearing fragile, on being championed by a coworker and by the policeman who looks into the case. After so much time spent aiming for perfection, she discovers there's a different sort of power to be had in appearing a mess.

The backdrop of conference rooms and corner offices, BlackBerry exchanges and company gyms in front of which so much of Love Crime's intrigues play out is absurdly abstract, just short of satire. It's never very clear just what business these characters are in. There are calls from "Washington," talks of writing reports and landing deals and finding local subcontractors, but these are all just trappings, ones that are in their own way as romanticized a setting for conflict as a dueling ground in a glossy tale of a more traditional type of aristocracy. And scenes in which Thomas silkily discusses the merits of buying a Manhattan condo while sitting by her pool, or in which Sagnier and Mille banter over a post-meeting dinner in a high-end restaurant, attest eloquently to the cinematic value of the luxurious, antiseptic bubble of fast-paced corporate life being imagined. Love Crime's is a world that has almost no outdoor spaces beyond the ones seen through skyscraper windows, just as the characters seem to have little in terms of personal lives that doesn't connect in some way to what they do for a living. Everything comes back inexorably to work, and given the way that work is presented, that's a terrifying prospect.