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‘Pour Elle’/'New York, I Love You’

Mr. Everyman's prison break

by Kaori Shoji

A gorgeous wife, a beautiful baby son and an apartment in Paris. What more could a man possibly want, especially when he’s a humdrum schoolteacher? But then one morning the placid life of Julien (Vincent Lindon) is blown to smithereens. His wife Lisa (Diane Kruger) is arrested for murdering her boss and snatched away from his arms, right there in his own home by a posse of brutal cops.

What does he do? What can anyone do, caught in the gnarly web of an unstoppable nightmare?

Directed by French fashion photographer turned director Fred Cavaye, “Pour Elle (released in Japan as “Subete Kanojyo no Tameni”) pursues the dazed, damaged Julien with the insistent persistence of a stalker. The film is Julien’s all the way as Lindon gives the finest performance of his career as he transforms from a quiet, bookish everyman to a man possessed by a single motive: to get back life as he knew it, with Lisa safely ensconced at the center of his existence.

As he tells his parents, the whole thing would be “bearable” if he had lost Lisa to an accident. But to have her imprisoned (the verdict is 20 years) for a crime she didn’t commit — he’d rather perish than accept it.

“Pour Elle” unfolds like a top-notch detective thriller; the early scenes when Lisa is taken away then brought to trial have undertones of “Crime and Punishment,” with Dostoevsky-esque probings into the issues of morality, trust and self-deception.

Both Lisa and Julien are adamant about her innocence but the rest of the world remains skeptic and the film does a delicate dance around the question, without setting the record straight. There’s always a small gray cloud of doubt contaminating his attempts to clear her name. The cloud is enhanced by Lisa’s strange passivity and occasional, enigmatic expression; as if she’s holding something back, or exorcising a memory best forgotten. One by one, family and friends wash their hands of Lisa’s tragedy but Julien forges ahead with the impossibly bold plan to spring his wife from prison and escape from France. Unnerving, unmerciful and spankingly stylish, “Pour Elle” cuts no one any breaks, least of all an audience used to instant relief following 11th-hour heroics. In the end, Lisa’s possible guilt isn’t even an issue — it all boils down to what one man will do for love.

New York, I Love You

This is the second in the “Cities of Love” series project — following “Paris je t’aime” three years back. Skeptical critics are already lukewarm about the whole thing, claiming that this looks better on a poster than on the actual screen. Still, it’s an enticing platter of cinematic morsels. Some bites will pop and sizzle on the palate, others will offer a tranquil healing experience, and there will occasionally be that flat, sour hit of disappointment. Which, you can say, is just like living in the city.

Unlike its predecessor, “New York” assembles an impressive crew of A-list performers and scatters them around Manhattan like jewelry in a display case — there’s a certain delight in seeing Ethan Hawke trying to pick up Maggie Q on a street corner (his “Before Sunrise” thing just isn’t working here); Christina Ricci (frighteningly thin) knocking on the door of Orlando Bloom’s low-rent apartment; and Cloris Leachman and Eli Wallach going off to Coney Island in a sort of romantic, road-movie trance. Love some, hate some; ultimately this collection captures the best part of living in a high-profile city like New York — the immediate intimacy between strangers that appear out of nowhere, and which just as quickly fades away.