Dir: Marina de Van. France/Lux/Belgium. 2009. 110 mins.

A woman searches for identity. An audience searches for elucidation. Both wind up equally perplexed in Don’t Look Back, an initially intriguing, ultimately incoherent mind-bender from second-time director-writer Marina de Van. Ostensibly a more mainstream project than her previous film, the very personal In My Skin, Don’t Look Back begins as a psychological thriller in a Hitchcock/Polanski vein, then strays into a thicket of distracting special effects, before heading for the far shores of existential nightmare. The film, released in France on June 3, could gross well initially purely on the appeal of its two female leads (Sophie Marceau and Monica Bellucci), but bad word of mouth will surely limit its life span. Sheer outlandishness might ensure a cult DVD afterlife, but export and festival prospects look equally thin.

A former collaborator with François Ozon, De Van made an eerie impression acting in his films Sitcom and Regarde la Mer. In her own In My Skin, she played a woman addicted to self-mutilation and established an auteur preoccupation with the traumas of female identity, which she explores further, but far less compellingly here.

Heroine Jeanne (Marceau) is a successful biographer and former child prodigy who comes unstuck when branching into fiction. Her publisher brusquely advises her to stick to her proven skills, rather than attempt to fictionalise her life. But Jeanne is fascinated with the mysteries of her past, having no memory of anything that happened before she was eight. At home with husband Teo (Di Stefano) and their two kids, odd details about their apartment become unfamiliar to her, and then she sees the face of another woman (Bellucci) replacing hers in a video.

The next thing she knows, Teo’s and the children’s faces transform, becoming bizarre, mask-like combinations of their own and someone else’s physiognomies. Jeanne changes too, her features getting stuck halfway between Marceau’s and Bellucci’s – to the merriment of the audience at the film’s first Cannes screening, proving there’s a thin line between the nightmarish and the just plain daft, especially when too-literal digital effects enter the mix.

The film takes a moderately revitalising left turn in the second hour, when Jeanne (now completely Bellucci) travels to Italy, and Italian dialogue, to solve the mystery of her past. Some teasing switcheroos are played, with both Di Stefano and Brigitte Catillon (Jeanne’s mother) appearing as different characters entirely. But the film soon slips its moorings, accumulating overtones of Lynch, Cronenberg, M. Night Shyamalan and Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, with a mysterious child, repeatedly glimpsed by Jeanne, guiding her to enlightenment. The solution, such as it is, is both banal and implausible, and the final shot places a kitsch stamp on proceedings.

The film’s failure is all the more disappointing in that the first half-hour hints at an elegant entertainment, with appealingly sleek camerawork and production values. De Van’s left-field sensibilities promise a distinctive Freudian-feminist gloss on the kind of identity-scramble puzzler epitomised by Polanski’s The Tenant. But De Van offers us insufficient signposting, so that we never feel sure whether to take the film as psychological thriller, abstruse parallel-world story or pure reverie. She also pushes her leads too far in the direction of eye-rolling panic, although of the two Jeannes, Marceau is the far more sympathetic and plausible. 

Production companies
Ex Nihilo

Wild Bunch
Samsa Film
Entre Chien et Loup
Ateliers de Baere
RTBF (Television Belge)

International sales
Wild Bunch
(33) 1 53 10 42 50

Patrick Sobelman

Marina de Van
Jacques Akchoti

Dominique Colin

Mike Fromentin

Production design
Véronique Sacrez

Luc Rollinger

Main cast
Sophie Marceau
Monica Bellucci
Andrea di Stefano
Thierry Neuvic
Brigitte Catillon