Well, I guess if you’re going to get obsessed, it might as well be over a movie about obsession. I watched Wicker Park sometime in the middle of 2006, and generally liked it but for some of the meet-cutes and annoying “hit” soundtrack and the fact that it seemed to totally fall apart in the last third. My main impression was “I bet this all really worked in the French version.”
Then, over the next few months, the movie just wouldn’t leave my mind. The strange resonances of the story and the double-obsession structure made me forget its flaws and just remember the generally affectionate lingering aftertaste it left. So I started to become obsessed with watching the original French version, imagining how much better it would be. Not finding it for rent anywhere, I finally just hauled off and bought it. Imagine my surprise to discover that… I didn’t really like it that much! They both have their issues, they both have their differences, and they both have their strengths. In this essay we’ll compare and contrast them, both to discover the different ways in which the story is told, and to uncover differences in the perceived French and American audiences.
Before we do, you might want to read the reviews of Wicker Park and L’Appartement individually. You should also know that this entire essay is going to be filled with spoilers, so if you read on, you will be exposed to plot twists all the way to the end of both films, although I will mark the major revelations. If you are interested in watching one or both of them, it’s probably best to preserve your innocence.
L’Appartement is a French film from 1996, written and directed by Gilles Mimouni. It stars Vincent Cassel as Max, Monica Bellucci as Lisa, Romane Bohringer as Alice and Jean-Philippe Écoffey as Max’s friend Lucien. This is Mimouni’s only film. Wicker Park is the American remake from 2004, starring Josh Hartnett as Matthew [the Max character], Diane Kruger as Lisa, Rose Byrne as Alex [the Alice character] and Matthew Lillard as Luke [Lucien]. It is directed by Paul McGuigan, best known for The Reckoning, Gangster No. 1 and Lucky Number Slevin, also starring Hartnett.
The French version begins with a pop song [that repeats three times during the movie] that says “It’s the same kind of woman… she’s the same to me.” Wicker Park also begins with some pop song, but it seems to have been determined more by which band the studio’s allies were looking to promote at the time. In L’Appartement we join Max as he is buying a ring for his fiancée. He is shown three rings, the jeweler telling him “the first is elegant, yet understated. The second is intensely beautiful, but dangerously sharp and cutting. The third is seemingly ordinary, but has an inner glow and luster.” It’s obvious that we’re talking about more than diamonds here, and indeed there are three different women in the story, who could be described in the ways offered above. Wicker Park casts itself as the “dumb American remake” early on when we skip the discussion of the different rings and go straight to Josh commenting directly on the metaphorical question: “I guess I just have to make the right decision.” Somewhere, the sound of a sledgehammer is heard. This groaner is made still worse by the jeweler responding “In the end, it is not just your eye that must decide.”
Interestingly, although the American version has dumped the diamonds as a metaphor for the women [although the scene appears in the ‘deleted scenes’], it has appropriated a visual motif that echoes the idea of seeing through a cut crystal or diamond, with a number of repeating images, seen from just slightly different angles or at a delay, reinforcing the central conceit of the movie: events seen from different angles and at different times. Wicker Park begins with a neat credit sequence in which the images are fractured and float over each other, the credits fluttering in before suddenly snapping into focus. So although the remake has dumped the diamonds as a representative of the women, it has taken it up as a metaphor for the issues of perception that the entire movie is centered around.
The first few minutes of both films are much the same. Matt/Max is going on a business trip to Japan/China [why Wicker Park changed his destination to China is anyone’s guess], and meets his fiancée at the restaurant, who gives him a sleeping pill “for the flight.” In both, Matt/Max goes to the restroom down a long hallway [recreated almost identically for Wicker Park], which ends at a phone booth occupied by a woman. Wicker Park shows Matt attempting to use his cell phone but unable to get a signal, which answers the question “Why are they using a phone booth at all?” L’Appartement was made before cell phones were ubiquitous, but even so, the plot requires that no one has one, or an answering machine, for that matter, and questions about why are unavoidable. In Wicker Park, Matt takes the sleeping pill just before he hears Lisa’s voice, adding to the dislocation he experiences in the scenes that follow. In L’Appartement, Max almost unnoticably [i.e. I didn't think he took it at all] pops one in his mouth the moment he is given it.
Matt/Max hears the voice of the woman on the phone and recognizes it as Lisa, who disappeared from his life with no explanation two years earlier. He finds a hotel key. He has some flashbacks [which we’ll go into later], then pursues Lisa to the hotel. In L’Appartement, Max first asks to see the occupant of the room and, when he is refused, he sneaks in, presented as quite risky and furtive. Up in the room, more flashbacks, detailing the beginnings of Matt/Max’s relationship with Lisa. In L’Appartement, Max is watching a commercial his friend is editing and sees a beautiful dancer in it. He looks up and happens to see the real woman across the street. He follows her all afternoon and evening, even ending up in an abandoned apartment across from hers, where she sees him in the window. Max is in a shoe store talking to Lucien the next day, when Lisa walks in. He impersonates a clerk in order to talk to her, and after some initial toying with him, she asks “Do you often stalk people?” In Wicker Park, the stalking aspect is seriously downplayed; in fact, on the commentary, there is a piece of the ‘following’ scene [where he is seen in the opposite window, like in L’Appartement] taken out because “we didn’t want him to seem like a stalker.” We do not see Matt sneak into the hotel, he is just suddenly outside the hotel room. In flashbacks, he first sees Lisa on a screen at a video store he is working at. He sees her outside and follows her for a while, but does not break into any apartment, nor is he seen by her while peering into her apartment. When she meets him in the store, she asks “Do you often follow people?” [i.e. not STALK, but "follow"]. Obviously, Americans are not comfortable with the idea of stalkers, and would not feel comfortable inviting a stalker into one’s life, as Lisa in L’Appartement does. Twice.
But it’s not all dumbing-down and flattening out for the American version. When Matt first sees Lisa, it is recorded footage from a video camera. When he sees that she happens to be outside, but he watches her for a while through the video camera, allowing McGuigan to continue to play with multiple refracted images, visually expressing the question, developed from the French film, of whether Matt is smitten with the actual Lisa, or an image of Lisa. The multiple video screens, reflections and split screens continue to express this question of image versus reality, while also getting across the idea of an action being viewed from different angles which will become very pertinent later, when we discover that someone else has been watching all of these events. Interestingly, however, in L’Appartement, all of the characters [save Lucien] have markedly different hairstyles in the flashbacks, allowing the viewer to know at a glance what time period he is watching. One would imagine that Wicker Park, aimed at American audiences, would want to preserve this to make the story as clear as possible, but they don’t; all of the characters have the same hairstyle in the present as in the past. It leads to more confusion, but that confusion may ultimately be helpful for the film, as in the viewer’s mind, past, present, memory, image and reality all become blurred in a way that continues to support the film’s themes. What the French version does not have to contend with, however, are an obnoxious rom-com feel to the meet-cutes [it’s not THAT cute when someone is stalking you], obnoxious pop music montages, and pasted-on “torrid” sex scenes.
The small but important differences continue to mount as in L’Appartement, Alice is about to kill herself by leaping from her apartment window when Max, who has used the key to enter her apartment, stops her—discovering that she is not Lisa. Apparently worried that American audiences would get weirded out by Matt becoming involved with a character who is on the brink of suicide, in Wicker Park she merely goes over and stands looking pensively out the window. I remembered Alex’s side of the story being presented in the last half-hour of Wicker Park, but on second viewing was surprised to see that, as in L’Appartement, it begins around the one-hour mark.
SPOILERS > > >
We take Alice/Alex’s perspective and re-see many events from the first half of the film from her perspective. In L’Appartement, Alice is attractive, but is played as quite disturbed. There are Sapphic overtones to her relationship with Lisa, which are erased from the American version. In L’Appartement, there is a sequence in which Lisa steps out onto a narrow ledge outside her window. It seems for some time that she’s about to kill herself—but no, she comes around the courtyard and steps into Alice’s apartment, seeking refuge from this man she’s having an affair with [he’ll come up later], with whom she’s been fighting. Her only acquaintance with Alice until that point had been noticing that Alice is obsessively watching her and Max from across the courtyard. So this is the second stalker in the movie that Lisa has welcomed into her life. Such mental instability and leeway for odd behavior has been ironed out of Wicker Park, where Alex’s watching of Lisa and Matt is less noticed, and when it is, is just a friendly ‘hi’ across the courtyard. Lisa does make her way out onto the ledge in Wicker Park, but it is much quicker and treated as cute, without serious overtones of impending suicide—which is good, as the suicide threat in L’Appartement turns out to be just a way to goose the energy of the movie, leaving a viewer feeling manipulated afterward.
The two movies continue in their respective veins—the French one a little loose on style, the American one more thoughtful stylistically, but with characters whose quirks have been flattened out. The scene in which Max/Matt doesn’t see Lisa right behind him is handled in a more matter-of-fact way in Wicker Park, without a lot of the preciousness that marred the French version. The theater scene is much more affecting in L’Appartement, with Alice quite noticeably turning away from the audience when she sees Max, ruining the entire performance when she runs off stage before it’s over. She is then yelled at by her director. In Wicker Park, Alex hides her face from the audience, but completes the performance, which gets an ovation. In L’Appartement, Alice is told that the woman Max met instead of Lisa [i.e. herself] is a “nutter,” which justifiably insults her, and which she reacts strongly to. In Wicker Park, Alex is repeatedly called a “psycho,” but she shows almost no reaction to this. In fact, there are a number of touches in L’Appartement that also appear in Wicker Park, but with reduced or almost no emotional impact.
But the biggest differences occur at the end. In L’Appartement, Alice gives Max her diary, which he reads, discovering the length and depth of her feeling for him, causing him to give up Lisa, whom he has been chasing for the entire movie. Which is good, because by that time, Lisa is dead! That jealous husband whom she was having an affair with shows up to the apartment and kills her. Max and Alice have a reunion at the airport, but when she walks off for a second, Max’s fiancée shows up. Alice sees her in his arms, looks stung—and fade out, the end.
Now the American Wicker Park is certainly not going to have the two leads who have spent the entire movie looking for each other not end up together, so although the murder subplot is there in the background, and the jealous husband is seen, he simply vanishes from the film after a certain time. Alex is revealed as the cause of Matt and Lisa’s trouble in finding each other, Matt abruptly breaks off his engagement at the airport, and he and Lisa are reunited. Their coming together is shot with them embracing in the airport as a number of anonymous people walk past, expressing the ways in which others in the world pass by each other without noticing, in effect expanding the themes of the entire film to the larger society. Unfortunately, however, the impact of this scene is neutered by the inclusion of an overbearing pop song, perhaps another requirement of all American movies aimed at younger audiences.
< < < SPOILERS END
Ultimately, the perfect version of this movie has yet to be made. Each of them ALMOST works. But the surprise for those convinced that all Hollywood does is flatten out and dumb-down is that each version has considerable strengths, and also points to social differences between the moviegoing public of each country. The French are seemingly more open to more ambiguous relationships and questionable behavior, as evidenced by the sheer amount of stalking and breaking and entering that is depicted as wholly acceptable, if not charming. They are also more open to ambiguous endings that resolve the story on a feeling rather than a definitive action. The American version smooths out any creepy or untoward tendencies in its characters and trends toward a traditional happy ending [which, after two hours of searching and yearning, I have no problem with], but addresses some of the nagging problems with the original [why don’t they have cell phones or answering machines?] while adding an intelligent visual scheme that expresses the themes of the movie and remains consistent until the ending.