Amnesia, identity confusion, a tortuous plot . . .
UK / 100 minutes / color / UK Film Council, Prescience, Forthcoming, JonesCompany, Aegis, Altus, Ealing Metro, Lipsync, Odd Lot, BFI Dir & Scr: Iain Softley Pr: Robert Jones, Dixie Linder, Iain Softley Story: Piège pour Cendrillon (1963; vt Trap for Cinderella) by Sébastien Japrisot Cine: Alex Barber Cast: Tuppence Middleton, Alexandra Roach, Kerry Fox, Frances de la Tour, Emilia Fox, Aneurin Barnard, Stanley Weber, Alex Jennings, Maisie Lloyd, Ciara Southwood, Nathalie Paris, Erich Redman, Elizabeth Healey, Pierre Boulanger, Tim Wallers.
After an explosive fire in a lavish villa in the south of France, the badly smashed-up survivor is flown to an exclusive clinic in Switzerland where Dr. Müller (Redman) performs extensive reconstructive surgery. Slowly the patient heals, although some faint scars may remain forever and she suffers near-total amnesia, no more than occasional disconnected glimpses of her past remaining. The clinic’s psychologist, Dr. Sylvie Wells (Emilia Fox), teaches the young woman who she is: 20-year-old orphan Michèle “Micky” Bean (Middleton) and presumptive heir, come her 21st birthday, to the fortune of her late aunt, hugely successful fashionista Elinor Raffermi (de la Tour).
Micky (Tuppence Middleton, right) meets Julia (Kerry Fox) for the first time after the extensive reconstructive surgery.
Eventually Elinor’s PA, Julia (Kerry Fox), arrives to collect Micky and take her home to London, where she shields the recuperating patient from contact with her earlier life. Micky, however, rebels, escaping from Julia to make contact with her aunt’s lawyer, James Chance (Jennings), and hooking up again with Chance’s assistant, Jake (Barnard), whom she recognizes from photos as her once-boyfriend. Although he admits that “Last time I saw you you said you never wanted to see me again—I’m glad you changed your mind” (“changed your mind,” geddit?), they have a nostalgic romp in the hay.
Micky (Tuppence Middleton) feels she vaguely knows Jake (Aneurin Barnard).
Like a gentleman, he returns to her the duplicate keys to her apartment, which she gave him some while ago. Armed with these she goes to the apartment (where, strangely, the utilities are still running, no one’s broken in, etc.) and starts to rediscover her former self: a freelance fashion model/photographer whose favorite subject seems to have been herself.
But the real trove in terms of recovering her memories is her discovery of a suitcase belonging to Domenica “Do” Law (Roach), containing photos and, most importantly, a diary. Through Micky’s reading of Do’s diary, manifested in extensive flashbacks, she gets a less-than-flattering portrayal of herself: loose-living, attractive and magnetic, but also thoughtless, callous and shallow. She (Southwood) and Do (Lloyd), daughter of Aunt Elinor’s housekeeper, were inseparable childhood friends—well, not quite so inseparable because, after they discovered Do’s father (Wallers) smooching with Elinor, they were decisively separated by Do’s furious mother (Healey), informed by Micky of the infidelity. Not long afterwards, Do’s father killed himself.
Do (Alexandra Roach, left) and Micky (Tuppence Middleton).
Years later, Do was working as a humble bank clerk when she spotted Micky with Jake and recognized her from her magazine photos. The two young women were delighted by the reunion, and soon Do was sharing Micky’s flat and, basically, living off her. Once again the pair became inseparable, much to the resentment of Jake, who saw Do as a rival. For her part, Micky seemed to be using the mousy, timid Do as a sort of backdrop against which she could display herself and thereby appear yet more shining. It was with Micky’s acquiescence that Do started to transform her image, becoming more and more a mirror of Micky—dying and restyling her hair, imitating the flashier dress sense, and so on. She also had an ill concealed crush on the prettier woman, a love that was not returned.
Do (Alexandra Roach) tries to fit in at one of Micky’s parties.
If she’s appalled by the picture of herself that emerges from Do’s diary, Micky is even more so by the appearance of Julia at the flat, telling her that she is in fact not Micky at all, but Do. Once more getting out from under Julia’s thumb, Micky/Do reads more of the diary, discovering that she’s not too keen on the revealed Do either, the Do who wanted to possess her supposed friend: “She doesn’t need him. She only needs me.” However, when she decides to lodge for a night at a cheap hotel and discovers that, without thinking, she has signed the register as “Domenica Law,” Micky/Do accepts the inevitable.
Aunt Elinor (Frances de la Tour).
There’s another extended flashback. We discover that Julia patiently manipulated Do into a hatred of Micky, persuading the young woman that Micky was in effect stealing the life that Do should have had. In this Julia was unwittingly aided by Micky herself, who perpetrated a series of slights, major and minor, on her mousier friend. Eventually Julia persuaded Do to set up a murder scheme, killing Micky in an explosion that would seem to everyone just like a ghastly accident brought about by a leak in the villa’s ageing gas pipes, and thereby inheriting Elinor’s fortune . . .
The transformation of Do (Alexandra Roach).
That might seem like a rather spoiler-rich account of the plot, but in fact that’s only the basic setup: there are plenty more twists and turns yet to come.
With its tropes of amnesia, reconstructive surgery, unexpressed lesbianism (Micky attracts not just Do but, implicitly, Julia), identity confusion (does “Do” stand for “ditto”?), godgaming and the corrupting effect of entitlement, this would seem to have Boileau–Narcejac’s fingerprints all over it, and the three thrillers written by “Sébastien Japrisot” (Jean-Baptiste Rossi, 1931–2003) are very much in that mold. The other two, Compartiment Tueurs (1962) and La Dame dans l’Auto avec des Lunettes et un Fusil (1966) have been filmed as COMPARTIMENT TUEURS (1965; vt The Sleeping Car Murders) dir Costa-Gavras, with Simone Signoret and Yves Montand, and La DAME DANS L’AUTO AVEC DES LUNETTES ET UN FUSIL (1970; vt The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun) dir Anatole Litvak, with Samantha Eggar, Oliver Reed, Stephane Audran and John McEnery. The novel upon which this movie is based was itself filmed decades earlier as the French/Italian coproduction Piège pour Cendrillon (1965; vt A Trap for Cinderella) dir André Cayatte, with Dany Carrel, Madeleine Robinson, Hubert Noël and Jean Gaven, a movie that I haven’t seen but would now much like to.
Escape from the flames.
What also seems typical of Boileau–Narcejac is that the movie’s plot, if looked at objectively, is completely nonsensical, and some critics have lambasted the movie on this account . . . as if, say, The USUAL SUSPECTS (1995) made a whole lot of sense. Yes, there’s no plastic surgery (yet) that could make one person a perfect physical replica of another; even if this could be achieved for the face, could the same be effected for the whole body?—remember that Jake, well acquainted with Micky’s body before the reconstruction, doesn’t notice anything amiss when revisiting it afterwards—and would anyone even make the attempt? The plot that Julia puts into place to grab Elinor’s fortune is so monumentally overcomplicated that, as Do points out, it’s doomed to failure, yet it seems somehow to work. As for Do herself, could she really be persuaded so easily to murder the woman whom she loves as a friend and with whom she is infatuated?
Do (Alexandra Roach) steels herself for the deed.
But plausibility isn’t what we’re looking for in neonoir, or in Boileau–Narcejac-style thrillers. We could equally well pillory Les DIABOLIQUES (1954) or VERTIGO (1958) for similar plot failings, and most of the more enjoyable recent neonoirs are even less defensible on the grounds of strict logic. Perhaps we might better admit, as the French and other cultures seem to have done long ago, that thematically neonoir at least overlaps with, and might perhaps be considered a part of, the cinema of urban fantasy, a subgenre whose rules don’t necessarily comport with the logic of the real world: the use of plastic surgery to achieve a simulacrum of someone else and the use of shapeshifting to the same effect are in a sense two sides of the same coin.
There’s some lovely cinematography in Trap for Cinderella, and also some nice sound design (by Ian Wilson), especially in the early stages: the sonic impact of the initial explosion startled me almost out of my seat while later, as Micky/Do is trying to habilitate herself to the London streets, the roar of a passing taxi had almost the same effect, thereby communicating nimbly Micky/Do’s sensitivity to an environment that is as yet alien to her.
Do (Alexandra Roach, left) and Micky (Tuppence Middleton) take different approaches to sunbathing.
Middleton’s fine in what’s effectively a dual role—although from time to time I wished she’d put a few more clothes on: Micky’s allure lies in her constantly mobile, very expressive face and the enticing mischievous gleam of her eyes, so the nudity (however pleasant on the eye) tends to be just an irritating distraction. Perhaps the idea was to further build up the contrast between the outgoing Micky and the reserved Do.
The real stars, though, are Kerry Fox as the manipulative sociopath and especially Alexandra Roach as, in effect, the little sister. Even though the two actresses are physically and facially quite different, there are times when you have to rub your eyes to remind yourself that this is Do you’re watching, not Micky.
On Amazon.com.: Trap for Cinderella [DVD]