Belgium/France. Directed by Fabrice Du Welz, 2015. Starring Lola Dueñas, Laurent Lucas, Édith Le Merdy, Héléna Noguerra, Anne-Marie Loop. 93 minutes. In French, with English subtitles.
It’s an old story, and atypically for the horror genre, this time it’s actually a true one. Raymond Fernandez was a con man who seduced, then swindled, women he met through personal ads. Martha Beck started off a potential marks, but soon became his willing accomplice, leaving her two children to travel with him, posing as his sister and aiding in his schemes. In 1949, they murdered three people. Authorities captured them within months and executed them in 1951. The press dubbed them “lonely hearts bandits” and “honeymoon killers.”
Belgian filmmaker Fabrice Du Welz based the plot of Alléluia on the Fernandez and Beck killings. Gloria (played by Lola Dueñas), a lonely single mother, stands in for Beck: she meets her Fernandez, a grifter named Michel (Laurent Lucas), through an online dating site. Gloria’s passion for Michel doesn’t dim even after he bilks her for a large sum of money; instead, she leaves her daughter with her best friend and runs away with him. Like the real Beck, she poses as Michel’s sister. Also like the real Beck, while she professes to accept that Michel’s con requires him to romance victims, the thought of her lover sleeping with other women (which, of course, he does; even though, of course, he denies it) fills her with jealous rage. Which leads her to kill Michel’s marks.
I fear I may have given you a wrong impression of Alléluia at this point; you may assume, based on my synopsis, that it’s a psychological thriller. Nothing could be further from the truth. Du Welz and his writing partners certainly don’t seem particularly interested in exploring how a seemingly devoted mother developed into a jealous murderer. This probably doesn’t surprise you if you’re familiar with the film for which Du Welz is best known: Calvaire, a surreal horror film in which an itinerant singer (also played by Lucas) becomes the victim of a disturbed innkeeper who becomes convinced the singer is really his long-deceased wife.
Calvaire derived most of its power from the subtle implication that the characters had unwittingly crossed over into a reality that looks the same as ours but follows different rules which seem alien and insane to the ordinary human’s mindset. Alléluia isn’t quite so strange, although it certainly features its fair share of weirdness, most notably when Gloria bursts into a musical while chopping up the corpse of one of her victims. (Before meeting Michel, she had a job as a mortician at a hospital, so this is work she’s uniquely suited for.) In another scene, Gloria and Michel indulge in a naked fire dance; indeed, we see Michel perform dark rituals more than once, to help with his cons. (Another connection to the real-life killers: Fernandez claimed to have learned voodoo and black magick during a stint in prison long before he met Beck.)
The problem is that if anything, Alléluia isn’t weird enough, and there’s a hole in the film that the lush cinematography and the fine performances by Dueñas and Lucas can’t fill. As I said earlier, Du Welz doesn’t give the viewer a sense of what it is about Gloria and Michel that causes her to become obsessed with him. (Michel’s rituals seem so incidental to the plot that it only occurred to me days later that they might actually be working.) This void exposes the fundamentally repetitious nature of the plot. (Step 1: they select a target; step 2: Michel promises Gloria he won’t fuck the target; step 3: Michel fucks the target; step 4: Gloria finds out and freaks out; step 5: Gloria murders the target; step 6: repeat.)
As a result, Alléluia is a worthy effort which much to recommend it but little to actually love about it, at least for me. Others, particularly fans of Lynchian surrealism, might find more substance here than I do.