"Poupoupidou" begins with a series of close-up images of a beautiful blonde woman in a wispy white dress. She looks like Marilyn Monroe, and as she sings a seductive, raspy rendition of "I Put a Spell On You," she sounds like Monroe too.
From the opening scene, the film put a spell on me and I was immediately sucked into writer/director Gérald Hustache-Mathieu's darkly comic noir about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the blonde woman's death.
David Rousseau (Jean-Paul Rouve) is a writer of detective novels -- the sort James Ellroy writes. On a visit to Mouthe, the coldest city in France, to collect a small inheritance, Rousseau also is looking for inspiration for a new book he is writing. He finds inspiration on the TV in his motel room, in a news story about the apparent suicide of a local celebrity known by her stage name, Candice Lecoeur (Sophie Quinton).
After doing some research, Rousseau finds Lecoeur is famous in the snowy town as the face model for "Belle de Jura" cheese, and for provocatively presenting the weather forecast on the local news. While trying to penetrate the mysterious circumstances surrounding Lecoeur's death, Rousseau becomes a detective much like the one in his novels. He discovers her real name was Martine Langevin, and soon decides to break into her house where he finds the key to unlocking her story: Her diaries.
During Rousseau's continuing investigation into her death, Martine reads the diaries in voiceover as we are shown key events in her volatile life. Rousseau also begins to notice eerie similarities between Martine and Marilyn Monroe, the least of which being that she told her friend and therapist (Arsinée Khanjian) she believed herself to be the reincarnation of the infamous star.
Although Hustache-Mathieu's method for revealing Lecoeur's past comes off as clunky at times, restricting our ability to identify with her on a deeper level, his script is sharp and surprising enough to keep the film interesting. His music choices reveal an acute influence of American cinema, as we are treated to songs such as a slowed down, acoustic version of "California Dreamin'" and the opening rendition of "I Put a Spell on You."
The American influence doesn't stop there. Throughout the film, Hustache-Mathieu pays tribute not just to Monroe, but also to the Monroe myth and the controversial nature of her death. Toying around with coincidence and fate, and blending in pitch-black humor, the director brings together a string of seemingly improbable events which amount to a stunning final act where several crucial misunderstandings lead to inevitable results-inevitable because we already know Lecoeur will die in the end. Knowing the "what" of the ending makes the "how" all the more interesting and unpredictable, but also, in a peculiar way, sweeter.
"Poupoupidou" was screened early this month at the 20th Annual French Film Festival at the Byrd Theater in Richmond, Va. Quinton was scheduled to attend the screening, but unfortunately could not make it due to family issues that came up. Her performance in the film is very good, but leaves more to be desired. The format of her scenes being told through diary entries is partially to blame, but on the other hand, much of what made Monroe so intriguing to the public was her off-camera mystique.
A lot of what makes the film really work is the subtle, quirky performance by Rouve as the detective novelist cum detective. His reactions to the strangeness of the small snowy town and its characters are what drive the movie forward so well. Through Rousseau, the film cleverly observes the public's fixation with celebrities, and the consequences of stardom on the stars, and on the people who surround them.