In May of 1924, two affluent students from the University of Chicago kidnapped a 14-year-old boy and murdered him in order to demonstrate their intellectual superiority. The murderers, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, were convinced that the philosophical implications of their crime would not only justify their actions but exonerate them if they were caught. The Leopold and Loeb case captured the imagination of the public at the time (headlines at the time touted the event as the “Crime of the Century”) and it would go on to influence a number of high profile films over the years, among the most celebrated being Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion.
Raphael Neal’s French language thriller Fever, which is an adaptation of Leslie Kaplan’s novel of the same name, is the latest attempt to deal with this notorious case. It’s not difficult to figure out why so many writers over the years have been attracted to this material. The philosophical and moral stakes involved in the Leopold and Loeb offer the storyteller a clear avenue at probing the dark side of human nature. In a manner that can only be characterized as darkly prescient, Leopold was fascinated with the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche; he was compelled by Nietzsche’s concept of the “superman,” and his misreading of the concept would find its horrific echo in Hitler’s Third Reich.
Damien (Martin Loizillon) and Pierre (Pierre Moure) are two high school seniors who are enrolled in a philosophy class. In an early scene, their teacher praises Damien for provocatively proposing the idea of a motiveless murder as a thought experiment to interrogate some of the ideas that they’ve been exploring in class. The irony is that Damien’s thought experiment has been put into action; the film begins with the murder of a woman who has been chosen at random. Complicating matters is a chance meeting with Zoé (Julie-Marie Parmentier), a woman who works at an optometrist’s office nearby the crime scene. The two young murderers bump into Zoé as they are fleeing the crime and it’s not long after the story of the murder becomes a news sensation that she starts to suspect that these two teens are responsible.
The film switches back and forth between Zoé’s obsession with the murder and the boys’ response to the aftermath of their crime. A complex relationship exists between these two boys; the blond-haired and confident Damien is easily the dominant figure, whereas the soft-spoken Pierre quietly anguishes over what they have done. The film very clearly stresses the homoerotic tension that exists between these two boys; as Pierre flirts with a fellow female classmate, we can see the look of jealousy in Damien’s eyes. Another scene has Damien dressing up in her mom’s clothing in a mock-playful fashion to further emphasize the close but inarticulate bond between these two boys share.
One of the smartest things that Fever does is to foreground the theoretical concepts that are inextricably linked to this crime. Damien and Pierre read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem for their philosophy class, and that book’s famous exploration on the “banality of evil” clearly correlates with the action of the film. Damien also discovers that his beloved grandfather was a collaborator with the Vichy government during World War II. The two teens become obsessed with researching what he had to do and they struggle to square the man’s actions in the past with his current kindly demeanor. Issues of morality and guilt are very much in spotlighted by the filmmakers, albeit in a manner that is never didactic or smug.
Despite the fact that the film tackles these weighty concepts, Fever manages to be a tonally quirky film. A sense of playfulness is generated by the unique soundtrack by French musician Camille, which is a sort of avant-gade cabaret style. One of the most unusual scenes occurs when Zoé and her husband attend a performance by Alice Snow (played by Camille herself) where she sings the title song in an a capella fashion that provides both the vocals and the percussive accompaniment. It’s a moment that serves to highlight the lyrics: “You give me fever – when you kiss me, fever when you hold me tight / Fever – in the morning, fever all through the night.” This conception of “fever” refers not only to the intellectual whirlwind that has consumed the lives of Damien and Pierre but also reflects a personal conflict that exists between Zoé and her husband. Zoé’s obsession with the absurdity of a senseless murder causes her to call into question her own life and the feelings that she has with her husband. Fever concludes on an ambiguous note that some viewers will find unsatisfying but is in keeping with the spirit of inquiry that Damien and Pierre’s philosophy teacher seeks to instill in her class; the point is not that the film tells you what to think, but that it inspires you to think at all.
Artsploitation’s DVD release of Fever presents the film in an excellent 2.35:1 transfer. Neal’s film is not stylistically flashy (this is more a film about ideas than action) so the lack of high definition is not a big deal. There are no imperfections to report.
There are two audio tracks on the DVD. The primary, and recommended, setting is a 5.1 Surround Sound track that does an excellent job. While the film is mostly dialogue driven, the track lets the rear channels do their work in outdoor scenes. Camille’s music comes through with clarity and provides a unique counterpoint to the action. There is also a 2.0 Stereo Track that is well balanced.
The only extras that exist are a theatrical trailer for the film and some annoying trailers for other Artsploitation releases that you need to skip through when you first put in the DVD.
The Final Word:
While Fever may not be as iconic as some of the other films that have been influenced by the Leopold and Loeb case, it’s a unique modern take on the subject matter that refreshingly spotlights the political and philosophical ideas that are involved in the crime. It’s willingness to avoid the conventionality of a film like Barbet Schroder’s lackluster Murder by Numbers (also inspired by Leopold and Loeb) deserves to be commended.