Alléluia (2014)

Alléluia first published by Sight & Sound, October 2014

Review: “Did you see it? The pain in Bogart’s eyes… Exactly, you see nothing. Yet he was consumed by the crab. Cancer of the oesophagus. He never complained. Never a word about the mosquitoes, the heat, nothing. Absolute respect for Humphrey.”

The speaker is Michel (Laurent Lucas), catching a matinee of The African Queen (1951) with his lover Gloria (Lola Dueñas), and praising his “favourite actor” in it for the heroic stoicism that enables him to conceal real suffering in the furtherance of onscreen romantic adventure. Michel too is engaged in a whirlwind romance with the possessive and utterly besotted Gloria, and does not himself complain whenever she ruins his swindling schemes by jealously (and serially) murdering his equally enchanted female marks – and so this odd couple, pretending at times to be sibling missionaries from Africa (just like the characters in The African Queen), enact their amour fou while keeping reality (be it Gloria’s discarded and forgotten daughter, or the enormity of the duo’s crimes) at bay, ever in search of “a love story… with a happy ending”. In their way, Michel and Gloria are living out a cinematic ideal – and it is in a cinema where we shall last see them, with Gloria determinedly keeping her eyes fixed on the screen’s shimmering dream images rather than turn and face the police who have just entered the rear of the theatre.

Inspired (like Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers, 1969, Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson, 1996 and Todd Robinson’s Lonely Hearts, 2006) by the real-life story of Forties murderers Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez, but transplanted to the Ardennes in present-day Belgium (where director/co-writer Fabrice du Welz‘s uncategorisable feature debut Calvaire, 2008, also took place), Alléluia is horrific true crime reconfigured as grand erotic delusion. Once the charming con artist, black magician and creep Michel has swept lonely single mother Gloria off her feet with tales of his (invented) calling as a shoe salesman (“I help people do something essential, find the shoe made for their foot”), it is in fact he who becomes pinned under the foot of her devoted infatuation, as she simultaneously insists on joining him in his seductive scams while refusing to countenance him having sex with anyone else. In Michel, Gloria has found her perfect fit – and in keeping with the footwear theme, Alléluia makes a veritable leitmotif of feet, shoes and toes. Whether used in sexual play, as weapons, or sawn off in the disposal of a corpse, these become fetishistic signifiers of another kind of extremity.

“There are people with bad intentions out there, incapable of understanding us,” Gloria warns Michel. “They no longer have dreams, they’re empty and alone, they live in darkness.” Her words drift across the fourth wall to put us in our place, right there in the theatre’s shadows – and if there is any doubt as to which side of the screen, which side of the gulf between fantasy and reality, Gloria herself occupies in this metacinematic exchange, she repeats her words in song, accompanied by an orchestral arrangement, before cutting up the body of a woman whom she has just murdered in the name of  intense romantic passion. For all its basis in reality, her madness matches the movies as the slipper fits Cinderella’s foot – while of course the actual ‘Lonely Hearts Killers‘ were arrested two years before The African Queen was ever released.

Synopsis: Present day, the Ardennes. Encouraged by her friend Madeleine, single mother and morgue worker Gloria goes on an internet date with Michel, and falls deeply in love. After realising that he swindles money from vulnerable women like herself, Gloria joins him anyway in his cross-country scams, leaving her young daughter with Madeleine. Posing as siblings, the lovers move in with Michel’s new bride-cum-mark Marguerite, whom Gloria murders in a jealous rage. Michel promises Gloria that he will now sleep only with her – and when Gloria catches Michel engaged in sexual acts with their next mark, the aged Christian benefactress, Gabriella, she again murders their hostess in anger. Gloria and Michel perform a private marriage ritual, and take work together in the country manor of young widow Solange, planning to kill her once she has married Michel so that they can inherit the property. Michel starts secretly drugging Gloria to conceal his growing attachment to Solange and her daughter Eve. When Solange reveals her pregnancy to Michel’s ‘sister’, Gloria makes Michel kill Solange. Eve escapes, and Michel and Gloria are arrested in a cinema.

© Anton Bitel