If it weren't so good, it would be glib fun to dismiss "Olivier Olivier" as a fractured fairy tale for recondite adult tastes; it's about a little boy on his way to grandmother's house with a food basket who is set upon by a wolf.
Yet that symbolic overlay is never intrusive or self-conscious; it's part of the quiet, clammy art of the film which advances through horror one intimate detail after another. Directed by the legendary Agnieszka Holland ("Europa, Europa"), the film is an existential thriller as chilly and dislocating as anything by Chabrol or Sluizer or Hitchcock, other masters of the art.
"Olivier Olivier," which opens today at the Charles, begins with a bright and happy family that, under it all, is not very bright and happy. Rural bourgeoise, the Duvals, Dr. (he's a veterinarian) and Mrs. and their two kids live in a picturesque farmhouse amid prosperity and content. But the family seethes with secret currents of dysfunction: The two children, Olivier and Nadine, vie for attention from their parents; mama Elisabeth secretly prefers Olivier to Nadine while holding her ineffectual husband Serge in contempt; Serge, for his part, yearns for freedom from this batch of whiners.
Then one day, like every other day, Olivier disappears, as if off the face of the earth. Holland, as it turns out, isn't terribly interested in making a police procedural, so the details of investigation, the documentary aspects of the film, seem somewhat lackadaisical, and that may cost the movie a bit. (One suspect, who in reality would be grilled like a cheese sandwich, isn't even interrogated). She is interested in what the tragedy reveals about the family, and watches how, in the aftermath of the disappearance, it all but unravels, to reinvent itself.
Serge (Francois Cluzet) uses the loss as an excuse to take off; Elisabeth uses it as an excuse to drive him away; Nadine uses it as an excuse to get close to her mother. In a strange way, each of them has profited from the crime.
Six years later, however, the provincial cop who failed to solve the case, now transferred to Paris, comes across a particularly smug 15-year-old male hustler with provocative knowledge about the case. He concludes the boy is somehow Olivier. And the boy (Gregoire Colin) is amazingly convincing. It soon develops that everyone involved has a vested interest in believing that Olivier has been restored.
The film therefore has icy parallels to that other European classic of possible false identity,"The Return of Martin Guerre," but it proceeds in much more unsettling ways. It tells us less about society than the strange culture of dysfunctional families. This XTC young man is feral and cunning and superficially charming and an exceedingly quick study. But, despite the considerable weight of delusion that supports the interpretation, the question remains: Is he Olivier?
Holland draws this game out superbly and finishes it with a stunning conclusion. Part mystery, part myth and part cunning psychological thriller, "Olivier Olivier" is superbly riveting.
Starring Francois Cluzet and Brigitte Rouan.
Directed by Agnieszka Holland.
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.