The terrifyingly destructive power of a woman’s sexual obsession provides the compelling subject for this psychological study of a woman’s descent into madness from French filmmaker Alain Tanner. It is the tale of Parisian actress Mercedes who is first seen attempting to break up with the obsessive Arab Johnny, who stalks her until she meets handsome newspaper writer Pierre on the subway and goes with him for an afternoon fling. Before the sweat even dries, she finds herself hopelessly in love with him. Pierre is flattered and encourages her desperate devotion, but soon after their affair begins, he is called off on a business trip leaving the suddenly distraught Mercedes alone with her demons. Though preparing for a new play, she is unable to concentrate and barely able to function without Pierre. She quits the production, locks herself in Pierre’s apartment and quietly begins falling apart until he returns.
NYTimes : Photographed in 16-millimeter black-and-white, it was later blown up to 35-millimeter, which somehow adds to the immediacy of the performance.
The film is the result of a collaboration between the director and his star, Myriam Mezieres, a leanly voluptuous actress who appeared in a small part in ”Jonah.”
She suggested the story, which was then written by the director. It’s about Mercedes (Miss Mezieres), a Parisian actress who breaks off her stormy affair with a young Arab totally obsessed by her, only to become obsessed, in turn, by her love for Pierre (Benoit Regent), a rather cool, circumspect French journalist she picks up one night in the Metro.
As much as Mercedes is obsessed by Pierre, Mr. Tanner appears to be obsessed by Miss Mezieres. Not often is an actress treated by her director with such adoring indulgence, which is as much the subject of the film as Mercedes’s consuming passion for Pierre. Even in these circumstances, however, ”A Flame in the Heart” is an interesting work by a first-class film maker.
Miss Mezieres is seldom off the screen and is usually in the center of the frame. She is a forceful presence. The camera attends each flicker of the eyelash in a face that has been worn by time, if not badly aged. The actress has an emotional weight that rewards the camera even when she is in repose, which is not often.
”A Flame in the Heart” has the manner of a movie improvised through long discussions and rehearsals – possibly too long. Its symmetry is more theoretical than compelling, as Mercedes, exhausted by her Arab lover, finds herself exhausting the patience of the rather mystified Pierre. They are very neatly ill-matched.
”You fly around the world,” Mercedes tells Pierre, a political columnist for a weekly magazine, ”while I am at the center, where it burns.” That sort of talk should give Pierre a hint that this woman is not going to walk out of his life casually.
When he must go away for two weeks, Mercedes slides into a passionate decline in his apartment. She gives up her job (she has been rehearsing the title role in Racine’s ”Berenice”) and hangs around all day, eating cornflakes and watching television. Because she prefers receiving letters from Pierre to talking to him, she cuts the cord of the telephone.
Pierre is as indulgent as Mr. Tanner. When he returns to find her looking like the wrath of God, having abandoned the outside world to attend to thoughts of him, he takes it as his due. He does not even make much fuss when he finds her doing an erotic striptease in a cheap arcade. Mercedes says there is no real difference between playing Racine and stripping. Pierre does not argue.
Mr. Tanner and Miss Mezieres seem finally not to know how to end this particular amour fou, though the final sequences are played out in a suitably exotic Cairo. What happens is not as important to the film as its portrayal of a singular woman by a dynamic actress.
Before the movie is over, Miss Mezieres gets to play every basic emotion in a mature actress’s repertory. She laughs, she cries, she masturbates. She tries to reason with an uncomprehending world. There is a long one-take scene in which she works herself up into controlled hysteria and tears, which turn her mascara into riveting black rivulets of sorrow.
”A Flame in the Heart” is bizarrely entertaining, though it is less about the woman than the actress. For this reason, I suppose, it could be called Mr. Tanner’s most personal film.
Subtitles:English srt & German srt