This is Eric Cherrière’s first time behind the camera. Previously the native of France had been an author of crime novels. Obviously the subject continues to inspire him because he has now written and directed his first film entitled Cruel. Showing his skills as a writer, Cruel is not your typical serial killer film. It is a noir thriller filled with existential musings.
We go deep into the mind of a serial killer and find that there really are no easy answers. Explaining away what causes a human being to do this – take the lives of dozens of people over more than three years – is not as easy as knowing that he was really affected by his mother’s death when he was six, that he feels trapped taking care of his sick father, has not found love in his life, or is totally disillusioned by the lack of connection in modern life. Blame is not what Cherrière is interested in as his film will not give you any quick answers. Instead you will probably come away from the film with more questions.
Living anonymously in the city of Toulouse has been lifelong temp worker Pierre Tardieu’s (Jean-Jacques Lelté) modus operandi. For 40 years he has been able to drift through life like a ghost, rather invisible with no one really noticing him. This serves his purpose well because Pierre is also a serial killer.
Taking on series of temporary and mundane jobs (like sweeping the floors at an aircraft hanger or separating platic bottles from other recycling) or taking care of his elderly father (Maurice Poli – White Fang) who is in an advanced state of Alzheimer’s. His lives his life isolated and usually bored. Maybe in order to break the boredom, Pierre stalks, takes thorough notes about, kidnaps, imprisons, and then kills random people. He has been doing this for over three years while documenting each kill meticulously in a series of old fashioned notebooks.
Suddenly sick of being the invisible man, Pierre strays from his strict rules about killing and does something out in the open to gain the attention of the authorities. Just around the same time, fate would have it that Pierre meets Laure (Magali Moreau) and they fall in love. His love for Laure seems to silence the desires he has to kill. She pays attention to him and that seems to fill the void. This makes the fact that he has a man in his basement and that he has a secret about his first victim and a connection Laure a lot trickier.
There are certain films that only the French could make. Only they have the talent and vision to bring to the screen certain subjects. Or at least do them well. This could have been completely corny film, but due to the tightness of the writing/story and the control exerted by the director Cruel ends up being a taught intelligent thriller. It explores the darkest reaches of the human psyche without allowing itself to become swallowed up in the dark. There is enough humanity to save it. In Lelté and Carrière’s hands Pierre becomes an antihero rather than a monster.
The character of Pierre is a man who seems to be living in the past. He spends some of his time watching old home movies of when he was a child and his family went on a vacation to the coast of Spain. If he is not taking care of his father he is daydreaming about that time at the beach. Pierre is a man searching to once again be that happy child. Questions about life are a big part of the film and never far removed from the surface making this really an existential examination of human existence rather that simply a voyeur’s look at a sick man.
What makes Pierre extra scary is the stillness in which Lelté plays him. He never yells or even speaks above a whisper. Pierre never has to move faster than his usual walking pace. The man displays a complete calmness and that is what makes him more dangerous. He is not out of control, rather he is very good at what he does allowing him to get away with murders for years.
Though the film does not give you any concrete answers it does not leave you with the feeling that it is unfinished. Even the open ended ending is not a disappointment.