A voiceover narration recounts an ominous, ancient oriental tale of a young man who was destined by the stars to kill a woman from the family of Liu Bao and who, in the aftermath of the commission, was sheltered from communal justice by a mysterious, accommodating woman. However, as the bizarre story unfolds, his new benefactor (and lover) is revealed to be the ghost of his victim who had reassumed a physical form in order to be able to exact retribution on her cold-blooded murderer. It is a strange scenario that is seemingly replayed with eerie semblance to an event one stormy night at an unidentified chateau in present-day France as a young man named René (Melvil Poupaud) scurries away from the vicinity of a woman’s lifeless body in an upstairs lounge, turns out the household lights, and attempts to dispose of a bloody knife in a nearby vacant lot. Days later, his legal defense is referred to a perennially unsuccessful attorney named Solange (Catherine Deneuve) – a woman reputed to have a sentimental weakness for advocating hopeless cases – who receives the notorious assignment from her supervisor Mathieu (Jean-Yves Gautier) on the same day that she discovers that her own son had perished in a motorcycle accident. Perhaps motivated by René’s peripheral resemblance to her late son, or having struck a sympathetic cord in the overwhelming evidence alluding to his guilt – including a purported eyewitness account by a respected psychotherapist from the elusive Franco-Belgian Psychoanalytical Society named Georges Didier (Michel Piccoli) – the adrift and emotionally distant Solange agrees to defend the evasive and casually indifferent young man, a fateful decision that would inevitably draw her into a strange, interconnected web of secret societies, judicial cover-up, and justified unaccountability.
Raoul Ruiz creates a deliriously irreverent, exquisitely intricate, and modern-day comic fable on predestiny, human will, and folly of manipulative (and exploitive) psychological study in Genealogies of a Crime. Using immediately identifiable signature shots of elegantly sinuous tracking, baroque stylization, shifting perspective (through variation in focal length), and odd angle framing (particularly ceiling shots that suggest a machinistic, overarching point-of-view), Ruiz creates an indelibly tactile and immersive surreality that retains the serious-minded intellectuality and (often excessive) analytical deconstruction of modern psychology even as the filmmaker’s agile camerawork provides a lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek whimsy to the characters’ humorless pedantism and paranoia: familiar Freudian elements (most notably, in the recurring references to eggs, transpositions of words, and in the interior monologue, free association of lipstick), elaborate role-playing (through counsel interviews, psychoanalysis, and staging of tableaux vivants), and formulation of conspiracy theories (through covert, ethically questionable tactics employed by the competing psychoanalytical societies represented by Didier and Christian (Andrzej Seweryn) in the name of scientific research). In the end, it is Ruiz’s sophisticated, intelligent, and infectiously playful anti-intellectualism that transforms the seemingly rote psychological drama on instinctuality and compulsion into a sublime and effervescent exposition on the interconnection between art and life, the foibles of rationalized, amoral behavior, and the innate recursiveness of human history.
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