Laure (Isabelle Adjani) convinces her boyfriend Samson (Gérard Depardieu), a small-time boxer, to pose for a photo-shoot, not realising it is part of a sleazy smear campaign against a politician with whom Samson once had a gay relationship. Offered six million francs to keep his mouth shut and leave town, Samson duly agrees. But once aboard the getaway train he is shot dead by a man who is his identical double (Depardieu again). Traumatised by this surreal turn of events, Laure seeks help from the police but is herself sought by the killer. Not only does he want the six million francs but he asks her for shelter, since the conspirators aim to tie up all the loose ends by killing him too.
Barocco draws its title from a literary work by Cuban poet and cultural theorist Severo Sarduy, although director/co-writer André Téchiné was also inspired by a painting by Rubens called “The Exchange of Princesses” which shows one figure becoming a copy of another. His film tends to divide French film fans between those who see it as a profound existential thriller and those that consider it a pretentious, implausible mess headed by an uncharacteristically weak performance from Isabelle Adjani. The latter claim is hard to fathom given Adjani exudes charisma as the coquettish yet spirited heroine. Although some critics maintain the film gives Gérard Depardieu few opportunities to display the breadth of his talent, he gives an equally edgy yet sympathetic performance, one that differentiates between his two screen personas with great subtlety.
Admittedly, Barocco is a very strange film, not just in concept but in that its mannered, romantic style and brief leap into borderline fantasy are somewhat at odds with the social realist milieu and political undertones. It is important to keep in mind that events unfold only superficially in the real world, but actually in the realm of cinema and include numerous references to classic movies, including a murder inside a train carriage evoking Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine (1938), dialogue lifted from Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1953), and the casting of Marie-France Pisier from the iconic Alain Robbe-Grillet thriller Trans-Europ-Express (1966) as a glamorous hooker. Pisier, whose scenes veer from dramatic with Adjani to tragicomic with Depardieu, is splendid and won a deserved Cesar award as best supporting actress.
Most significantly, Téchiné references the work of Alfred Hitchcock, a common touchstone for many French filmmakers given his influence upon the Nouvelle Vague. Not only does composer Philippe Sarde contribute a magnificent (Cesar award-winning) score reminiscent of the great Bernard Herrmann, but Adjani’s hands-flailing gesture during the death of Samson directly imitates Tippi Hedren in a scene from The Birds (1963). And of course, the core idea of the protagonist transforming someone into the recreation of their lost love is lifted from Vertigo (1958).
Events unfold in an intriguingly dreamy style that makes little sense of the conspiracy subplot and its sinister participants, but proves genuinely compelling. The cinematography by Bruno Nuytten was another divisive factor, but won the film its third Cesar award and is actually outstanding as his camera dollies hypnotically back and forth across the scope tableaux and weaves in magical moments like a musical interlude with Laure beguiled by a cabaret singer. Detractors assert the idea that a woman could fall for her boyfriend’s killer is absurd, even he does share the same face. Nevertheless Téchiné details the unlikely romance in believable fashion, cleverly showing how Laure discerns qualities both men share in common. Both are likeable losers, full of big dreams but haunted by the notion they are doomed to fail and ultimately duped by shadowy conspirators with murky motivations. Resurrection is another of the film’s key themes. As the guilt-ridden killer slowly morphs into Samson mk. II he grows into a kinder, gentler person so the romantic conclusion feels justified.