Do you remember being there at the start of Spike Lee, John Sayles and the Coen brothers? I do -- and as if it were just yesterday. I only wish I could have been there for the first blush of Breathless and The 400 Blows, but I couldn't drive (or even walk) when those two happened. Love Me If You Dare doesn't quite trumpet a filmmaker with the promise of his countrymen Godard or Truffaut. But in these dull, safe, unoriginal cinema times, Yann Samuell's feature film debut is smart, imaginative and promising enough. It's also terrifically fun to watch.
Love Me If You Dare -- its French title, Jeux d'efants, literally means "children's games" -- revolves around the eternal love affair between Julien Janvier and Sophie Kowalski. Act I takes place in grade school, where Julien comes to hate doctors and dictionaries when he learns the word "metastasis." To cope with his mother's impending death, he bonds with Sophie, the "dirty Polack" (so her classmates tease) who lives in a slum with her immigrant parents. The two children play a perpetual game of dares that include such ditties as shocking their teacher ("B" is for "big dick" and "boner") and peeing on the rug in the principal's office.
Cut to high school and college, where libidos blossom and the games get rougher. With love and sex at their disposal, the two torment each other with foreplay and third-party trysts. This goes on until one gets married, on which day they agree not to meet again for 10 years. That's Act III, the most bizarre and bittersweet yet.
Like most first films by young directors, Love Me If You Dare has lots of flair and even some special effects to visualize its fabled sensibility. What may seem like just a romantic dramedy is sprinkled with little subtexts and cultural critiques to keep you thinking: Samuell's Introduction to Suburbia montage, with its frisky slow-mo Jack Russell terrier, is especially tart, and Julien's cruel father is a piece of work. The story glides along to Julien and Sophie's favorite romantic song, the Piaf classic "La Vie en Rose," performed at least half a dozen different ways, from Louis Armstrong's traditional croon to a techno-funk Donna Summer version over the closing titles.
Love Me If You Dare is either the most romantic movie ever made or the most anti-romantic, and Samuell's macabre ending recalls Tom Tykwer's Run Lola Run, where you can decide for yourself how it really "ends." I won't spoil it for you, not even with a hint, although let's just say it's anything but concrete. Where Samuell will go next in his career is anyone's guess, but I'm awfully eager to find out. In French, with subtitles.