The dazzling stretch of Mediterranean coastline from St Tropez to the Italian coast has long been a playground for the rich, and a haven for scoundrels. A sunny place for shady people, Somerset Maugham called it, and he knew the place well.

In this luridly plotted game of intrigue – the opening night offering in the Alliance Francaise French Film Festival – two independent operators in a similar line of business fall in love when they run into each other “at work” one balmy night. She is Margot (Marine Vacth), tanned and exquisite, and on the hunt for rich, older men; he is Adrien (Pierre Niney) whose current mark is an ageing actress Martha (Isabelle Adjani) who knows this isn’t love but still wants him around.

The complications that arise from their affair are so elaborately duplicitous you wonder how they keep track of their own lies. Were the paintings Adrien steals from Martha’s walls fake in the first place, which is what he tells Margot? Or were they real, which is hinted at later? Margot, incidentally, has a child, a gorgeous little girl in her own image whose conception was a distasteful piece of deception that didn’t come with the payoff she planned.

Obviously, a lot comes unstuck when the two lovers rise from their bed and head off to earn their free lodgings; a film star mansion in Adrien’s case, a large and tasteful apartment for Margot. So much goes wrong, a court case tries to pull the pieces together although it seems to confuse things further.

Some nasty psychology is thrown into the mix. When Margot proposes to her older mark, Simon (Francois Cluzet, best known from The Untouchables) and is rejected, the tears are from fury, not sadness. He has returned to the older wife he still loves Carole (Emmanuelle Devos) while she has experienced warmth and tenderness she wasn’t expecting. But to reject a beautiful woman at the peak of her wiles is unforgivable and he must pay.

While visually gorgeous, none of it seems much fun. The film gives the impression of a sun-drenched romp by a couple of beautiful shysters who inveigle their way onto the Riviera scene on the strength of their looks. A fair trade, some might think. But like so many French comedies, it has a seam of cruelty at its core and innocent people are made to suffer, including Martha who is reduced to an object of derision when Adrien writes a cruel roman a clef about a relationship in which she has all the money, he has youth and looks.

Meanwhile, Margot is pregnant again, this time by the usual means. The question is, how far will she go to get what she really wants which is, ironically enough, a home somewhere else, and a quiet life?

Masquerade is showing at Palace Nova Eastend and Palace Nova Prospect as part of the Alliance Française French Film Festival, which runs from March 23 to April 19. Read InReview’s preview of festival highlights here.

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