American teenager Aurore (Lizzie Brochere) gets her parents to agree to leave her alone in Paris while her father heads back to the States on business. The rebellious teen soon meets Chris (Pierre Perrier), a wanderer who gives her life a bit of excitement. They embark on a passionate affair that quickly turns into an all-consuming passion. Chris is a dangerous proposition though, who gets violently jealous if Aurore speaks to other men, but she’s smitten.
Chris has a secret though, he likes to pick up rent boys. While Aurore doesn’t seem sure about this, she goes along with it, allowing her boyfriend to go into his van with a trick he’s picked up. When she returns something terrible has happened and the rent boy is dead. Chris insists it was an accident and Aurore agrees to help him cover it up. Soon though it becomes apparent that this wasn’t a one off, but Aurore has been drawn in so deep, will she even want to get out?
Co-directed by Jean-Marc Barr, star of the likes of The Big Blue and quite a few Lars Von Trier movies, American Translation is an intriguing but rather strange film, which seems to both embrace and reject the US movie idea of a pair of lovers on a crime spree. As with many French movies since the New Wave, it is fascinated by Hollywood even while it tries to suggest something new and different. However its main problem is something that affects much film from around the world, a difficulty creating a fully rounded female character.
American Translation goes deep into Chris, and while some of its suggestions about how he got to be the way he is aren’t 100% convincing, he’s an interesting character even if he isn’t a very nice one – indeed much of the time he’s a complete bastard, not to mention a serial killer. You certainly want to know more about him though, with the movie dissecting his strange predilections, complicated sexuality and amoral behaviour. The problem is Aurore, as the movie never finds a reason for her to behave the way she does.
You’d need a pretty big impetus to just go along with it when you found out that not only does your boyfriend like picking up rent boys, but he also enjoys murdering them. However Aurore just seems to accept it. Yes she’s in love and she wants to rebel, but she’s left so blank compared to Chris that her reasoning seems impenetrable. It’s tough not to come to the conclusion that the film doesn’t understand women, and so doesn’t really know what to do with her.
Chris doesn’t understand English, so American Translation just gets Aurore to bluntly speak her thoughts in English, explaining it by saying that Chris likes the sounds even if he doesn’t know what she’s saying. It basically feels like the movie is admitting it has no clue how to present a fully rounded, complex female character who would believably get involved with the multiple killer, and so resorts to the cheap trick of getting her to essentially address the camera and say ‘This is what I’m thinking and how my mind works’. Even so it fails to get under her skin and her motivations remain inexplicable. Sure she wants to rebel, but the film doesn’t take her on a journey where it feels believable she’d go as far as she does.
It’s a shame as the Chris side of the movie is extremely good, as while he’s pretty horrible he’s also complex and enigmatic. Perhaps if the film had spent more time allowing him to seduce Aurore it might have worked, but she knows he’s potentially dangerous pretty much from the start and just blithely seems to go along with everything. Aurore could be some sort of statement about how passive and underwritten female characters often are in American films, but it doesn’t quite work here.
It’s a shame really as much of the film is very good and certainly keeps you watching. With a fair amount of skin and an intense performance from Perrier, it could have been so much more if it had paid as much attention to Aurore as it does to Chris.
Overall Verdict: An intriguing thriller that certainly gets under the skin of its murderous protagonist but undermines itself with a female lead who seems too passive and inexplicable.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac