Faint but discernible echoes of Hitchcock and Antonioni abound throughout “You Go to My Head,” a coolly affected yet ineffably captivating drama that builds interest and sustains tension by teasingly frustrating audience expectations at almost every turn. At first, it appears that director Dimitri de Clercq, along with co-scripters Pierre Bourdy and Rosemary Ricchio, have concocted the blueprint for a psychological thriller. Only gradually does it become clear that the filmmakers are more interested in charting a map of the human heart.
The narrative begins in a desolate stretch of the Sahara Desert, as a beautiful young woman (Delfine Bafort) extracts herself from a wrecked car and wanders, dazed and lost, across the sand. But these opening scenes are far less melodramatic than that description sounds. Indeed, it’s all too easy to be distracted by the artful frame compositions and color contrasts to fret too much about where this survivor is going, or how she expects to get there. There’s a lengthily held shot of the woman clad in red as she trudges up a sand dune — not the last image in “You Go to My Head” that appears ready-made for inclusion in a coffee-table book.
The plot doesn’t kick in until the woman, dehydrated and barely conscious, is discovered by Jake (Sevetozar Cvetkovic), a reclusive and conspicuously older architect of some renown. He beckons a doctor (Abdul Jalil Zerououl) who assumes the woman is Jake’s wife, diagnoses her condition — she’s suffering from trauma-induced and quite possibly permanent amnesia — and indirectly offers a temptation that Jake is unable to resist.
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Jake brings his “wife” back to his remote desert home, a spectacularly spare architectural marvel of his own design, and attentively nurses her back to health. (That home, which ends up being, for all practical purposes, a supporting character, is the much-admired Fobe House designed by Guilhem Eustache and located near Marrakesh.) But he has no intention of helping her regain her memory.
Instead, Jake informs her — gently, soothingly — that her name is Kitty (an invention inspired by a watch he finds among her possessions) and they have been happily married for six years. For this deception to work, it helps a lot that they have no neighbors. It helps even more that Jake comes across as so disarmingly sincere that Kitty is inclined to believe he really loves and cares for her. Which might not be a deception after all.
Exquisitely photographed by Stijn Grupping, “You Go to My Head” arguably is too lovely to look at for its own good. More problematically, it often has the air of something hermetically sealed and tightly controlled, an environment where every detail is meticulously calculated and devoid of spontaneity. Even the cat that fleetingly slinks behind a seated Jake late in the film looks carefully rehearsed.
And yet, if you can surrender yourself to the measured rhythms of the film and accept its mix of feeling and artifice, you may find much to admire here. Especially impressive are the performances of Balfort, a Belgian model-turned-actress whose lithe and expressive physicality serve her well while playing a woman skittishly awakening to a world she doesn’t remember, and Cvetkovic, a Serbian-born stage, screen and TV veteran who near-miraculously generates sympathy for a companion-starved character whose true nature remains disconcertingly ambiguous, and whose desperation often threatens to push him toward even more extreme measures. (Think Terence Stamp in “The Collector,” only more engaging.)
Despite the sporadic appearance of supporting characters, “You Go to My Head” lingers in the memory largely as a two-hander. The deft interplay between the two leads is by turns suspenseful and sensual. And that balance is sustained so that the viewer is never allowed to forget that Jake is, for all his loving gestures, essentially a predator. (The Chet Baker recordings of melancholy jazz ballads played under the opening and closing credits — “I’m a Fool to Want You” and “You Go to My Head” — may or may not be an ironic touch.) And we’re never unaware that, for all her growing attraction to Jake, Kitty is being coaxed into accepting an identity that she possibly won’t live to regret.
There’s a point when you can’t help suspecting de Clercq and his writers have painted themselves into a corner, and must cap things off with a predictable payoff. But the resolution to this twisted love story is dramatically and emotionally appropriate for a film that upends expectations.