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Beginning in a suburban France of the 1970s, Julien and Sophie grow up together, making their lives more agreeable through a series of dares based around a merry-go-round figurine given to Julien by his mother. After the death of Julien’s mother and Sophie being constantly subjected to racist taunts, the two are inseparable—even as they reach their teenage years. When the two finally realize that they may want to be more than friends, “real life”—Julien’s father, exams, and their futures—intrude. They are separated for years, relying on increasingly more dangerous dares to color their bland grown-up lives.
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Translated, somewhat bafflingly, as Love Me If You Dare (the French title is Jeux d’enfants, literally, “children’s games”), this feature written and directed by Yann Samuell treads a fine line between extreme sentiment and mind-boggling, dark morbidity. At the heart of the film’s soundtrack is the song “La Vie en Rose,” performed in a variety of versions both classic and re-interpretative, and the heady, hypervisual tone gives you a glimpse of a world both familiar and larger-than-life. Its appearance as a simple boy-meets-girl friendship and romance story ends up toying with the viewers’ notions of love and games.
The soaring, imaginative visual style matched with emotional music lends some of the most imaginative titles sequences in recent years, recalling Moulin Rouge—stylized shots of a red-and-white merry-go-round compete with a construction site and finally narration from a young boy. This is Julien (Thibault Verhaeghe), aged 8, who advises us that games are all well and good, but he wouldn’t recommend playing while being encased in a block of cement. This is the viewer’s first indication that this film may not be what one was expecting.
After Julien’s mother dies, his father summons Sophie to spend the night, knowing that despite his misgivings about her, he can’t cope with a Sophie-less son. Ten years pass in one night, and a teenaged Julien (Guillaume Canet) dares Sophie (Marion Cotillard) to show up to her exams wearing her underwear on top of her clothes. Their dare ritual “might now be called a perversion.” Still, Sophie goes through with it, writing her math formulas on the chalkboard with bra and underwear over her 1980s dungarees. Outside the exam room, Julien is flirting with Aurélie Miller, much to Sophie’s distaste. After her exam, Julien derides Sophie’s disgust as jealousy. Sophie acidly informs him that the only things noteworthy about Aurélie Miller are her earrings and that she is sleeping with Igor the gym coach. She dares Julien to get Aurélie’s earrings by hook or by crook. He not only does but causes the flustered Aurélie to miss her math exams. Igor the gym coach is in for a wild day of his own.
Just as Julien and Sophie seem to be realizing their love for each other, Sophie accuses Julien as continuing to play games rather than invest in real feelings. The two attempt to reconcile in the library as they cram for exams, but Julien feels the pressure from his father to pass and also the ultimatum never to see Sophie again. In the end, it’s Sophie who leaves Julien by bus, and they dare each other not to meet up again for a year.
An amusing montage shows it’s actually more than four years before Sophie and Julien’s next meeting; he has gone through his university years, gotten the big job and the company car. She has gone through a punk rock phase. It’s working tables as a waitress that Julien finds Sophie, and though she is initially reluctant to talk to him, an unspoken dare—to lose his preppy Doc Martins and pressed white pants—eventually breaks her frosty silence. “Sorry I’m not the shipwreck you imagined.” Julien invites Sophie to dinner and appears to ask her to marry him. Once he’s thoroughly convinced her (and the viewers) of that fact, he introduces his fiancée and reveals Sophie has actually agreed to be a witness at the wedding. “Now we’re even.”
The series of dares gets darker and more dangerous, though an unconventionally romantic ending is at last achieved by the star-crossed lovers.
Love Me If You Dare is very quirky and eccentric, and for some this will be just what the doctor ordered. Scenes of near saccharine quality are revealed to have jagged depths, and the film has a darker edge than similarly eccentric French comedy-romances, like Amelie. Visually it’s extremely striking and never shies away from being outrageous: Sophie and Julien stand kissing in the middle of the road, oblivious to car horns, and eventually stand on top of the car’s roof. Quite possibly my favorite fantasy sequence was young Julien imagining the book of Genesis with himself and Sophie starring as Adam and Eve, their vile teacher as a snake sock puppet, and their school principal as a wrathful God, doling out punishments for the fallen, including “pretty mums who are sick.”
The film appears to take a really sinister turn in the last quarter, and the viewer will be shocked—and then laughing with relief when Julien reveals just the extent of his most audacious dare. If you think that only in operas like Aida do absurdly romantic endings occur in order to preserve a love unable to survive in an outside world, take a look at Love Me If You Dare!