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At the AFI National Film Theater

to July 31

The wildest idiosyncrasies are aired in a psychoanalyst’s office, especially when kinky Olga Kubler is on the couch. The beautiful, discreetly bruised wife of corrupt Parisian real-estate developer Max Kubler (Yves Rénier), Olga (Hélène De Fougerolles) enjoys being punched and throttled during sex, although her greatest erotic rush may come from shoplifting. Her laconic analyst, Michel Durand (Jean-Hugues Anglade), rarely says anything when she reveals her unconventional pleasures. In fact, Olga’s salacious monologues tend to put Michel to sleep—which is just one of the conceptual gags driving Mortal Transfer, Jean-Jacques Beineix’s first fiction film since 1992’s IP5, and his most cogent since 1986’s Betty Blue (which also starred Anglade).

Sleep, of course, is the enemy of reason. So when Michel wakes up after one session to find Olga dead, he can’t exclude himself from the list of suspects. He calls a friend who’s a cop, but he quickly thinks better of explaining his situation. Instead, he hides Olga’s body, all the while attempting to deflect the suspicions of his cleaning lady; his other patients; his impulsive new painter girlfriend, Hélène Maier (Valentina Sauca); and the eccentric Erostratus (Miki Manojlovic), a sometime department-store Santa Claus who seems to know entirely too much about Olga. Then Michel is visited by Max, who is seeking not Olga but the 7 million francs he claims she stole from him.

Francs? Yes, Mortal Transfer was first released in 2001, just before the euro replaced France’s former currency. Received unenthusiastically by French critics, the movie never acquired an American distributor. But this blackhearted widescreen romp achieved a cult reputation while traveling the U.S. film-festival circuit, including screenings in the American Film Institute’s European Union Film Showcase in 2001 and Filmfest DC in 2002. Now the AFI (the one in Symphonyville, not Discoveryland) has brought Beineix’s film back for a series called Second Chances, which will present four notable European features spurned by the American market.

Sex, money, jealousy, delusion, murder, an inconvenient corpse—these ingredients are enough to determine that Mortal Transfer is another expression of the French enthusiasm for Hitchcock. A thriller whose most startling moments are impeccably timed slapstick set pieces, the film has an affinity with the droller work of another Gallic Hitchcock buff, the wildly inconsistent Claude Chabrol. Beineix, who’s made four documentaries since the underwhelming IP5, is pretty inconsistent himself. After announcing himself in 1981 with a neo-nouvelle caper, Diva, he directed only five more fiction films, including the ravishing but ridiculous The Moon in the Gutter and the intense but overwrought Betty Blue.

Like that film, Mortal Transfer is not for the kiddies, but the two flicks have rather different attitudes toward sex. Betty Blue, famed for opening with a long take of its principal characters screwing, presented eros as transcendence. Although the newer movie is as carnal as any Freudian’s daydreams, its idea of a sex scene is a would-be necrophiliac’s assignation with a inflatable doll in a Paris cemetery. (The joke is that Michel spends most of the movie trying to dispose of the necrophiliac’s dream girl: Olga, the sexiest cadaver in town.) Beineix even stages a reverse striptease, in which Hélène hops out of the deeply distracted Michel’s bed and tells him off as she puts her clothes on.

Most of the film’s gags are queasily physical, and the visuals make Michel’s uneasiness palpable. Beineix shot this tale of tight spaces—offices, elevators, trunks, and crypts among them—in CinemaScope, and with a blue-tinted palette that suggests a view from underwater. Such little bursts of color as Michel’s red socks and Olga’s yellow Porsche (the subject of much unwanted attention) just emphasize the chilly look, which continues even into Michel’s psych-textbook dreams. As the shrink analyzes his youthful traumas, he comes to discover that one childhood totem he remembers as blue actually isn’t.

Scripted by Beineix from Jean-Pierre Gattegno’s novel, the movie must ultimately solve the mystery of Olga’s death, which may involve Michel’s own analyst, Dr. Zlibovic (Robert Hirsch). As in many thrillers, the resolution seems perfunctory. The director has so much fun getting there, however, that it hardly matters. With the normally vivacious De Fougerolles as perhaps the gamest stiff in cinematic history, the movie is more diverting than The Trouble With Harry and Weekend at Bernie’s combined. Mortal Transfer is a psychological burlesque in which it’s the body, rather than the mind, that refuses to be subdued.

In the early days of Marxism-Leninism, the heralded “new man” was an exemplary laborer with instinctive class consciousness and a secular saint’s penchant for forbearance. Such a creature, if he (or she) ever existed, has nothing to do with the “new Russian” depicted in Pavel Lounguine’s latest film, Tycoon: A New Russian. In the jokes they share, the protagonists of this ripped-from-the-Cyrillic-headlines saga lampoon new Russians as mindlessly acquisitive yuppies. Yet Platon (Vladimir Mashkov) and his buddies Viktor (Sergei Oshkevich), Larry (Levani Uchaineshvili), and Moussa (Alexandre Samoilenko) are also paradigms of the new Russia: In addition to purchasing designer clothes and imported sports cars, they buy power, influence, and possibly the president of the Russian Federation.

Tycoon has been widely compared to The Godfather, but it plays more like a new-Russian Citizen Kane, albeit with a different sort of twist ending. Both films are about media moguls, although Platon comes late to journalism, only after abandoning a possible career as a mathematics professor to make a fortune in semi-legit business—most notably with a corrupt scheme to re-import cars that never actually leave the country. (As “imports,” they can be sold for hard currency rather than unreliable rubles.) Unable to control troublesome Kremlin fixer Koretski (Alexandre Baluev), Platon’s Infocar buys a TV station and begins to build the career of Lomov (Vladimir Goussav), a Boris Yeltsin-like Siberian governor. But when Platon proves too cocky for the increasingly influential Lomov, Infocar is raided by the police and its chairman’s Mercedes is incinerated by a barrage of antitank missiles. The 13th assassination attempt on Platon, a TV reporter announces, was successful.

The raid and the near-simultaneous attack are where Tycoon begins. Like Orson Welles’ fictionalized biography of William Randolph Hearst, Lounguine’s movie is told mostly in flashback and was inspired by a real person. Although the director calls Platon a composite character, Lounguine acknowledges that his protagonist is derived from Boris Berezovsky, a wheeler-dealer currently in British custody, battling against extradition to face Russian fraud charges. Part of the film was shot in the offices of Berezovsky’s firm, LogoVaz, and some LogoVaz executives appear in it. Berezovsky’s critics have even accused him of financing the film, which depicts Platon as a charismatic, if not exactly scrupulous, character.

Platon’s life is reconstructed by the plodding, conscientious Chmakov (Andrei Krasko), a judicial investigator. He follows the careers of Platon and his friends from their early attacks on the socialist economy—critiques that Platon defends to Communist hard-liners as purely mathematical—to the high-stakes power struggles that lead one of the gang to suicide and another to betrayal. Along the way, Platon dallies with lovely (and initially married) Maria (Maria Mironova), who bears his child and is rewarded with an executive position at Infocar rather than matrimony. “My only crime is being a free man,” announces Platon, but he claims the sort of liberty that in the West is associated with rock stars, not trading-company magnates.

People who lived through the ’90s in Russia—or at least followed the news from Moscow very carefully—will probably have an easier time with Tycoon than the casual viewer. Still, Lounguine is not primarily concerned with storytelling. The director, whose previous films include the carelessly structured Taxi Blues and The Wedding, flashes backward and forward with abandon, depending less on narrative flow than on outrageously stylized bits—the kittens whose presence announce an imminent killing, for example—and his lead actor’s swagger and smolder. (Mashkov, a Russian cinematic veteran, has also played the monomaniacal Slavic villain in various Hollywood movies, including Behind Enemy Lines, in which he had the entirely sympathetic task of attempting to kill Owen Wilson.) Tycoon plunges into an era during which everything—from currency values to the concepts of good and evil—was in rapid flux, and its pulp-history mythmaking manages to convey something of the period’s frenzy. When it’s all over, you may not understand exactly what happened, but you’ll know it was exciting. CP