American Translation (2011)
Director: Pascal Arnold, Jean-Marc Barr
Cast: Lizzie Brochere, Pierre Perrier, Karl E. Landler
Synopsis: A sexually ambiguous Frenchman tours his native countryside with his naive American lover in pursuit of the ultimate thrill.
What would you do if you discovered the person with whom you were profoundly in love, the person who had irrevocably transformed your life, was a serial killer? That is the scenario that Pascal Arnold and Jean-Marc Barr’s American Translation explores with fitfully impressive, but mostly distancing, frankness. To be honest, the only way that you would find the movie’s own answer to that question to be believable, is if you also harboured the same capacity for murder as its hapless protagonists. Faced with such a mind-blowing dilemma most of us would be straight around to the nearest police station, all illusions shattered, but pulse still intact.
Lizzie Brochere plays the French-American Aurore, a pretty but spoiled daughter of a successful businessman, who falls for Chris (Pierre Perrier), a handsome and charming – but enigmatic – young drifter. Between road trips in Chris’s camper van, the couple set up home in Aurore’s father’s largely unused apartment, and allow their attraction to one another to become almost all-consuming. However, following their marriage, Aurore learns that Chris has a dark side which compels him to kill male prostitutes…
The directors’ production notes for this film suggest that it is inspired by the Freudian theory of Eros and Thanatos, which suggests that there are two conflicting drives within all of us – one (Thanatos – after the Greek word for death) is the drive of aggression, sadism, destruction, violence and death, while the other (Eros) is the drive of life, love, creativity, sexuality, self-satisfaction and species preservation. Now, to me, that sounds like the basic template for probably ninety-five percent of movies ever made, so that to conjure up the theory in promotional material smacks a little of artistic pretension. The film itself does little to dispel this suspicion, but, while it fails to inspire the corresponding conflict of emotions in the audience, American Translation does at least hold the audience‘s attention thanks largely to an intense, mesmerising performance from Pierre Perrier as the sociopath killer, Chris.
For justification of his deeds, Chris provides the kind of evidence of an upbringing that provides ammunition for those apologists who believe in blaming everyone but the criminal – a childhood of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of those in whom we should most be able to trust – parents and the church. The sexual element to his crimes is glossed over, perhaps because the makers felt that would be an aberration which would result in the audience losing any residual sympathy it might have for Aurore once she discovers her lover’s true nature. Given the film’s conclusion, that we are supposed to sympathise with her plight – and, to a much lesser extent, that of Chris – is in no doubt, but it’s something of a tall order, especially after witnessing a drawn-out murder in which Aurore becomes complicit.
American Translation makes for unpleasant viewing, particularly for those who aren’t accustomed to seeing gay sex on-screen – even though the content here is mercifully brief. While not wishing to alienate or insult any gay readers out there, it’s fair to say that particular ingredient, which still remains largely unexplored in mainstream cinema, is something of a specialised dish that is not for all tastes. The movie is redeemed somewhat by decent pacing and accomplished performances from the two attractive young leads.