France-Belgium. 2003. 93 mins.

To rework an old Jean Cocteau pronouncement, just as there was painting before and after Picasso, there is French cinema before and after Amelie - as some local scribes are putting it with some alarm, there is the "Amelie Poulain-ization" of French movies. As evidence of this, here is Love Me If You Dare (Jeux D'Enfants), a romantic comedy-fantasy about two young people who go through life daring one another to commit increasingly outlandish acts. Like Jean-Pierre Jeunet's monster international triumph, it is chock-a-block with hyper-realistic whimsy, trendy surrealism and feel-good sentiment.

But likeable and funny as it, this first feature by 38-year-old one-time graphic artist Yann Samuell strives too hard for eccentricity and lacks much of the goofy charm and melancholy of Jeunet's film. Most of all it lacks an effortlessly ingratiating central performance that Audrey Tautou embodied ' fast-rising young talents Guillaume Canet (who impressed earlier this year with his directorial debut, My Idol), and Marion Cotillard (featured in Tim Burton's upcoming Big Fish) make an attractive screen couple but too often they have to compete with Samuell's busy, dizzy narrative to win audience sympathy.

In addition, the shadow of another film haunts Love Me If You Dare, to the latter's detriment: Toto The Hero, the 1990 debut feature by Belgium's Jaco van Dormael, a successful pre-Jeunet blend of fantasy and realism. Both van Dormael and Samuell encapsulate the entire life spans of their protagonists, both set their tales in the distinctive landscapes of Belgian suburbia; and both use a popular song as an aural leitmotif: Toto was scanned by a Charles Trenet song; Love Me If You Dare by Piaf standard La Vie en Rose.

Still, despite or because of its derivative aesthetics, film has proven to be the unqualified sleeper hit of the new fall season: with over 800,000 admissions nationwide in first three weeks and cartload of foreign sales contracts - including a US deal with Paramount Classics. But it remains to be seen if foreign audiences will warm up to the antics of the children of Amelie and Toto.

Samuell's script (written with Jacky Cukier) is a meet-cute tale of two Belgian youngsters, Julien and Sophie, who grow up together but can't admit they love each other. Sophie suffers from being the taunted child of Polish immigrants; Julien avoids the truth about his terminally-ill mother. More than just childhood sweethearts, they conceal their true feelings for each other behind an endless round of mutual challenges. At first the dares remain relatively innocuous and childish - Julien urinates on the floor in front of the principal's desk; Sophie's wears her bra and panties over her street clothes. But as the two grow, the game-playing become more perverse, even life-threatening. In the end, of course, they in a final clinch, their love (literally) cemented for eternity.

On a technical level, the film delivers what it promises. Samuell gets vivid visual contributions from lenser Antoine Roch and production designer Jean-Michel Simonet and special effects designer David Tomaszewski, while editor Andrea Sedlackova melds the many episodes into a fluid arabesque of rhythm.

Prod cos: Nord-Ouest Productions, Artemis Productions, Caneo Films, M6 Films, France 2 Cinema, StudioCanal, Media Services
Int'l sales:
Films Distribution
Fr dist: Mars Films
Executive prod: Eve Machvel
Christophe Rossignon
Screenplay: Yann Samuell, Jacky Cukier
Antoine Roch
Editor: Andrea Sedlackova
Production des: Jean-Michel Simonet
Costumes: Julie Mauduech
Special effects: David Tomaszewski
Music: Philippe Rombi
Main cast: Guillaume Canet, Marion Cotillard, Thibault Verhaege, Josephine Lebas-Joly, Gerard Watkins, Emmanuelle Gronvold