Amour fou in a French penitentiary has Blue is the Warmest Colour star Adele Exarchopoulos falling in love with the prison warden in Pierre Godeau’s slickly-produced true-story tale of forbidden passion, Down By Love. We first meet Anna (Exarchopoulos) as she arrives at a prison to await her trial. Focusing on her familiar features while we hear the shouting and threats of male prisoners, there is an echo of Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, but don’t get your hopes up. There is a naturalism to the first minutes with fellow inmates played by real prisoners and the prison itself portrayed as relatively relaxed, despite the odd punch up in the exercise yard.
Anna’s crime is never revealed but was obviously serious and her guilt is never truly in question. This sidestepping of guilt and unpleasantness is only the first in several such manoeuvres which are perhaps aimed at having us not rush to judgement, but end up seeming manipulative and dishonest. Enter Jean (Guillaume Gallienne), an ambitious and relatively young (he’s in his forties) director of the prison. With his scraggy beard and sleepy eyes, there’s something of the bohemian about him – he’ll later confess to a dream of wanting to be a painter – but he moves effortlessly through his work with an obvious competence that is one shade of grey away from hubris. And soon enough following a brief interview, he has begun to feel for Anna and, having given her a job keeping the books for the commissary and a conveniently private room to boot, an affair ignites between the two.
If the story sounds like the kind of titillating headline that might have graced the front pages of one of the less prestigious Sunday red tops, that’s because that’s more or less where it came from. Based on a front page grabbing true story that happened in 2011 and the subsequent memoirs of the prison director himself, Godeau’s movie does its damnedest to move away from the sleaziness of the affair – Jean is of course married with a little nine year old daughter who does contemporary ballet – and portray Jean and Anna’s love as something rare and beautiful. The story contorts itself in all sorts of ways to get us onside. A plaintive Georges Delerue influenced score by Robin Coudert graces the romance and Muriel Cravatte’s camerawork is studiously sober, except for a couple of golden-hued dream sequences. We also have some waking hallucinations, and at one point Jean also watches a French version of Big Brother only to see Anna as one of the housemates. This escaping from reality places us firmly in the head of Jean and this is at the expense of Anna, who remains the obscure object of desire. Even worse there is a scene in a classroom where the class unwittingly discuss literature and thereby the main theme of the film, as if we wouldn’t notice. The same cinematic sin is committed by Blue is the Warmest Colour, to be fair, but that Down By Love repeated the scene further shows up its lack of originality.
To top it all, the English language title has to be one of the biggest marketing clangers of recent years. The film has no relationship tonally or otherwise to Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant black and white prison caper Down By Law. One can only assume that the title was a lunchtime joke that accidentally got left in.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty