First impressions count with actresses. It really does make a difference which role they happen to be playing when you first come across them. I could never quite forgive Audrey Tautou for Amèlie for example. Monica Belluci meanwhile, will always be for me the elusive yet doomed Lisa. There's nothing that the graphic rape scene in Irrevèrsible could ever do to change that, but I decided it was time to re-watch Gilles Mimouni's L'Appartement, as if to purge that still vivid phantasmagoria from my system.
Bellucci has all the makings of a femme fatale, yet somehow usually ends up a victim herself. Vince Cassel's character Max's sums up his own first impression thus: "She has something special. I don't know. Something sad, something tragic in her eyes." And unless you agree with Max, and come to share his fascination, L'Appartement will be little more to you than a Hitchcock-esque thriller that plays out in a series of elegant, masterfully-selected Parisian locations. The vision of black-eyed Bellucci staring curiously, yet defiantly through the shoe-shop window needs to leave the same sort of indelible impression on every male audience-member that it does with Max - and I think it is something that Bellucci does especially well here. (The fact that Vince Cassel married her afterwards only seems to confirm this!)
Like Vertigo this is a movie that plays on male obsession. Indeed I used to wonder whether the ladies could ever really fully appreciate it, but watching it again it occurred to me that perhaps the softly psychotic Alice holds up a mirror to the opposite sex's self-destructive compulsions. Only at the end do you realise that you've pinned your anxieties to the wrong romance and that this is after all, Alice's tale. Or maybe it is poor Lucien's. There are even several candidates for the the eponymous apartment. This rich and tasty ambiguity is delightfully French.
L'Appartement is also one of those dramas of narrowly missed communication opportunities. (Remember the unread note that slips under the doormat in Tess of the D'Urbervilles?) Without doubt modern technology is making these increasingly hard for writers to craft; very little in this story would have worked out this way if the characters carried mobiles (or worse still Blackberries), starting from the crucial early scene around the payphone in the basement of the cafe.
Unfortunately in 2004 Hollywood saw fit to produce an English-language remake called Wicker Park starring Josh Hartnett and featuring a cafe called Belluci's. The charima-free Diane Kruger (Helen in Troy) plays Lisa. The absence of mobile phones was somehow more credible back in 1996. One to avoid I think.
(I noticed afterwards that Romane Bohringer's filmography includes the intriguingly titled He died with a felafel in his hand. )