If you hired an independent filmmaker to create a perfume ad, and then turned that ad into a full-length movie, you’d probably get something that looks a lot like Dimitri de Clercq’s directorial debut, “You Go to My Head.”
The ominous score and stark visual beauty do initially suggest a noirish romantic thriller. But the more opportunities director-producer-co-writer de Clercq takes to shoot Belgian model Delfine Bafort in various states of languorous undress, the more it starts to feel like we’re watching a vanity wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Whose wishes are fulfilled, exactly? Well, anyone who wants an extended opportunity to gaze at a professional model nude in a shower, bed or pool, certainly. But also those of Jake (Serbian actor Svetozar Cvetkovic), a middle-aged architect who lives alone in the Moroccan desert. After Dafne (Bafort) and her husband are in a car accident, she stumbles alone through the Sahara in a state of amnesiac distress, until Jake finds her.
Stunned at his, er, good fortune, he makes the most of it by telling this physically and emotionally vulnerable stranger that she’s his much-younger wife. Since he was in the process of selling his gorgeous, isolated house before he discovered Dafne, he has to quickly revise his plans.
De Clercq, who wrote the screenplay with Pierre Bourdy and Rosemary Ricchio, doesn’t go in much for plot — or maybe he thinks that’s plot enough.
Dafne does ask a few questions, but Jake gives pat answers and she seems to accept them. Who is she? According to Jake, she is “sweet and good-natured and quiet.” What did she do before the accident? Well, he says, she danced, and swam, and was “mysterious,” but didn’t have a job other than being his muse. Also, he decides, her name used to be Kitty. This apparently works for her, so she becomes that person, or sexual pet, spending her days swimming, wandering through the house quietly and lying in bed with him.
If this sounds to you like the premise of a horror movie, you’ll be significantly disappointed. Though there are several promising structural elements, the vacancy at the story’s heart sucks them into a mind-numbing vacuum that an inevitable late shock does nothing to resolve.
Bafort carries a naturally magnetic presence with relaxed ease, but it never seems to occur to anyone, in front of or behind the camera, that Dafne is little more than a live mannequin. So while Cvetkovic is unable to fully acknowledge either the black-and-white villainy of Jake’s actions or the complexity of his self-delusion, it’s not his fault: How could he, when the script seems to share that delusion?
Dafne does wonder why there’s barely any furniture in Jake’s home, but the set is so magazine-layout beautiful, and the actors required to do so little within it, that it feels like the barren décor could just be an aesthetic choice. Cinematographer Stijn Grupping makes the most of this wonderfully eerie setting, framing every image like a work of art. His camera takes its time (and then some) with every gorgeous, sun-speckled shot of desert sand, or evocatively shadowed view of waving bedroom curtains.
But without a substantive story to back up his intentions, these considerable talents are put to purely visual, rather than thematic, advantage. There’s nothing wrong with a movie that follows its own, insistently deliberate pace. If there is no satisfying end goal, however, an iconoclastic approach quickly shifts from artistic depth to empty posing.
The same is true for Hacène Larbi’s sinister score, which leads us in the direction of a thriller that never fully unfolds. Indeed, the more impactful moments are the ones that rely on diegetic noise: the wind rustling, an unexpected jeep arriving. Again, though, these are hints at another movie altogether. For the audience, the loudest sound may eventually become that of a very slowly ticking clock.
“You Go to My Head” premiered Feb. 9, 2021, on VOD.