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‘Olivier Olivier’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 19, 1993

Like a most seductive spider, Agnieszka Holland snares us in her Charlotte's web -- the provocative fairy tale "Olivier Olivier," which she weaves thread by spooky thread. She draws us in like slow silly bugs with her sun-sweet opening scenes of children at play in poppy fields. It is a gateway with a David Lynch-pin as it turns out, the entrance to the perverse subtext beneath this bucolic French landscape.

Drawn from a news story in Le Matin, the film explores the inner workings of the seemingly happy Duvals, who turn out to be the most dysfunctional family since the Palmers of "Twin Peaks." Elisabeth Duval (Brigitte Rouan) and her husband Serge (Francois Cluzet) frequently fight over Elisabeth's coddling of their 9-year-old son Olivier, who already has a reservation at the Bates Hotel and Motel School. His older sister, Nadine, is fond of the tyke, but she is understandably jealous of her mother's obsessive devotion to Olivier.

Then one day, the child sets off for his grandmother's house and mysteriously disappears. Last seen wearing a red cap and carrying a lunch basket, he is clearly a modern Little Red Riding Hood. And it appears he met a wolf along the way when Druot (Jean-Francois Stevenin), the detective in charge of the investigation, finds no trace after weeks and months. The family breaks apart in the aftermath, only to come together again six years later when Olivier seems to have come back. Or has he?

Like Holland's Nazi-era "Europa Europa," this film is preoccupied with questions of identity, not so much who we think we are but who we seem to be. Olivier at 15 (Gregoire Colin) is a gaunt and enigmatic version of his cherubic younger self. Or so it looks to Druot, who has become a vice cop in Paris, where he arrests the teenager for prostitution. After determining that the boy knows things only Olivier could know, Druot contacts Elisabeth, who joyfully confirms his identity and returns with him to Provence.

Hinting at her own off-screen transgressions in the past, Elisabeth promises Olivier "a normal life" this time, but she soon falls into old patterns. She has grown into a saner, stronger person while living alone with her daughter, but as the proud, pouty teenage Nadine (Marina Golovine) points out, she's quickly back to "licking their butts and boots." Of course, Nadine is jealous and guilty all over again.

"Olivier Olivier" is a psychological whodunit when it comes to placing the blame. Nadine, like her mother, suspects that she might have had something to do with Olivier's disappearance. As a girl, she liked to scare him with tales of alien abductions and plant the nightmares that sent him running to his mother's bed. Or perhaps she had subconsciously evaporated him with her telekinetic powers, which she mastered in adolescence.

Nadine is the second Olivier's only detractor. To her increasing irritation, the members of the family and then the community fall under this social chameleon's spell. It is only a matter of time, she knows, before she too is licking his boots. He knows what she needs and in what order. First tears, then love, and finally truth.

"Olivier Olivier" is a bit of fin de siecle folk art, a dexterous and disturbing construction of milk carton kids, alien abductions and sexual deviants. Where others find topics for talk shows, Holland finds the makings of modern myth. Though the film looks at a relationship between parents and children, it seems ultimately to belong to Olivier and Nadine, so disarmingly played by Golovine and Colin. The cast is superb, with Rouan potentially surpassing Joan Crawford as the Mom From Hell and Cluzet bewildered and shattered, but Colin is the sparkling dew on the spider's web as the changeling.

Indeed the fairies might have made it all happen. Or the aliens. Or their evil agents who walk among us.

"Olivier Olivier" is rated R for sexuality. It is in French with English subtitles.

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