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By Christopher Zinsli | July 1, 2004

The game is simple; the movie is not. With “Amelie”-like visual flair, “Love Me If You Dare” tells the story of best friends Julien and Sophie, who as children devised a game of one-upsmanship. Whoever holds the brightly-colored carousel candy tin controls the next dare. “Game or not?” one asks at the other’s reluctance to meet the challenge.

Julien releases the parking brake on a school bus full of children. Sophie gives her class an alphabet lesson they’ll never forget by naming vulgarities beginning with “B” (there are a lot). Dragged to the principal’s office, the pair urinate on the floor. And so on and so on for upwards of thirty years, as we watch the couple flirt with romance in between bouts of anger.

As adults, Sophie and Julien are played by Marion Cotillard and Guillaume Canet (Cotillard you might recognize as Billy Crudup’s wife in “Big Fish”), who share a great chemistry as the not-quite-lovers. In a story that rarely stops to catch its breath, the pair endure economic differences, racial slurs, parents’ deaths, and lots of torment and humiliation at each other’s hands. For them, above all else is the game.

First-time writer/director Yann Samuell’s imaginative fantasy sequences progress from crayon-and-marker paper cutouts when Julien and Sophie are children, to fully formed 3D computer graphics when they reach adulthood. Just as Sophie is never sure whether Julien is being forthright in reciprocating her feelings or if he’s just playing the game, Samuell shows us a number of events that never really happened. He regularly knocks us off balance, tricking the audience as Julien and Sophie trick each other.

The game so consumed the friends’ formative years that, as adults, they find themselves still in its grasp, torturing and taunting each other like schoolchildren with a crush. But the longer their obvious love for one another goes unrequited, the more bitter and spiteful their dares become. The once precocious game becomes increasingly sadistic, even dangerous. After instigating a rift between Julien and his father, Sophie finds herself standing in front of an oncoming train at Julien’s behest.

The script offers up some deviously clever twists and dark laughs reminiscent of the over-maligned French (coincidence?) Stewart spite-a-thon, “Love Stinks,” only with a jaunty European twist. In one particularly uproarious sequence, the two take turns slapping a jock around over a course of weeks until the poor meathead has been reduced to tears. Their game, it seems, can victimize others as well as themselves.

The biggest dare of all, though, comes from director Samuell in asking us to love Julien and Sophie. It’s not hard at first, since Thibault Verhaeghe and Joséphine Lebas-Joly (who play the pair at age 8) have the kind of angelic faces and heart-melting grins the most successful troublemakers are blessed with. But as the couple ages, it becomes harder and harder to forgive their escalating mischief and misanthropy. Ultimately, viewers will have to ask themselves if they’re game; those who are will be in for quite a ride.

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