“Alleluia” is the latest in a series of films based on the real-life Lonely Hearts murders by American serial killers Raymond Fernandez and Martha Beck. This Belgian-French co-production sets its updated version of the story in present-day Francophone Europe. It’s difficult to tell (at least for this American) whether we’re in France or Belgium.
That doesn’t matter, as the developing relationship between the two leads is in focus here. Director Fabrice Du Welz takes this unusual liaison down a genre-bending path that includes such disparate elements as a musical sequence, occult practices, erotic noir thriller scenes, and slasher horror tropes. The result is a fascinating and original take on the film’s source material.
“Alleluia” stars Laurent Lucas (“Calvaire,” 2004) as Michel (the Fernandez character) and Lola Dueñas (a veteran of many of Pedro Almodóvar’s films) as Gloria (the Beck character). Héléna Noguerra appears as Solange, the murderers’ final victim before their apprehension by the police. The film premiered at Cannes in 2014.
According to Gary Goldstein of the Los Angeles Times, at least three other films have drawn on the history of Fernandez and Beck’s crimes. “The Honeymoon Killers,” a 1970 American docudrama directed by Leonard Kastle, was the first (and, for Goldstein, the best) cinematic adaptation of the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. After almost thirty years, two more Lonely Hearts movies appeared: “Deep Crimson” (1997, Mexico) and “Lonely Hearts” (2006, USA).
In the late 1940s, Fernandez met his victims through “lonely hearts” personals in newspaper classified ads, a practice that led to the “Lonely Hearts Killers” moniker. In Du Welz’ version (co-written with Vincent Tavier and Romain Protat), online dating websites provide the venue for the con.
Fernandez’ M.O. was to seduce and defraud vulnerable women, whom he would then abandon. Murder didn’t enter the picture until he met Beck, who was to be one of his victims. Her apparently selfless devotion won him over to the point that he revealed his scam to her. To his surprise, she became a willing accomplice. What he did not know was that her irrational jealousy could and did lead to murderous rage.
“Alleluia” is faithful to the outline of the Lonely Hearts Killers story, but takes great liberty with non-essential details. Intriguingly, it includes and emphasizes Fernandez’ history of head injury, which led to changes in his personality that likely contributed to his psychopathic behavior. Likewise, Beck’s more chaotic character flaws are not only preserved but enhanced in the avatar of Gloria. These characteristics make believable the film’s gradual transition from erotic drama to horror thriller.
Lucas and Dueñas completely inhabit these otherwise ordinary human beings, showing how certain kinds of psychological problems can be both a great advantage and a curse. The chemistry between these two actors is enhanced by rich and sometimes surrealistic cinematography at visually-intriguing locations. The subtle ending keeps the focus on this central relationship even as time is running out for the two killers.
A tip of the hat is due to Bleeding Critic, whose compelling video review of “Alleluia” convinced me to see it. This film (in French with English subtitles) is currently available on DVD through Netflix, as well as via Amazon Video, Vudu, YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play. I gave it 8 out of 10 stars on IMDb.