According to Patrice Leconte, women live to be vulnerable, men thrive when they are in command and the two genders can only find happy fusion once they've tasted one another's fates ... unless they capriciously kill each other. Or at least this seems to be the director's thesis in Girl on the Bridge, a moving and memorable film that has been defined as a fairytale and romantic comedy -- incorrectly in both cases. Although his latest document is fanciful, libidinous and funny, the director of Monsieur Hire and Ridicule this time lays a tight, specific allegory at our feet, with Vanessa Paradis as Woman, Daniel Auteuil as Man and the mad art of knife-throwing as Life. This elegant vision of sexual roles is certain to make a lasting impression and is likely to provoke explosive dialogues in Denny's and sidewalk cafés from here to Monaco.
We open by meeting the depressed young Adele (Paradis) in a setting that could be a solemn therapist's office, a vulgar talk show, or -- as is commonly and woefully the case -- both. Having discharged all her hope through countless acts of lascivious naïveté ("Life starts when you make love," she euphemistically explains to her interviewer), she's a young woman with an old, withered heart. An outsider who believes happiness is for other people and being duped is her destiny, she is preternaturally calm despite her misery. In the manner of countless Sylvia Plaths before her, she decides the next world is a better bet, and soon enough she's teetering over the Seine on an icy night, completing the titular tableau, ready to take the plunge.
"You look like a girl who's about to make a mistake," announces a mysterious voice, and from the velvety darkness emerges a strange man with a peculiar intent. Gabor (Daniel Auteuil) is clearly disturbed and looks as though he's seen his own share of sorrow, but his goal is clear: He must have this confused princess, and he's willing to splash into the river after her to claim his prize. Then, once he's praised her gluteal attributes, she's accepted his obsessive behavior and they've both recovered from hypothermia, he clarifies why burned-out women are his stock in trade: He likes to throw knives at them.
This productive pastime is new to both master and ward, however, because although Gabor is an old hand at symbolic mastery over the fair sex and Adele clearly knows the ropes of being used, the two discover a psychic link that instills their practice with hypersexual passion. Perhaps because she hasn't earned the weariness that sounds so jaded on her tongue and he's looking at life from after the fall, they forge a symbiotic relationship. Gabor falls into a trance of defined purpose when his blades thump into the wood around her body, and Adele, at first fearful, soon writhes in throes of ecstasy. He tells her that the thrower is irrelevant -- it's the target that counts -- but as their adventure takes them from carnivals to cruise ships, from France to Italy to Turkey, from luxury to heartbreak, we come to understand that each plays both roles in this romance of risk.
Although sometimes the movie's episodic structure is so stiff as to seem like a formal exercise, there's no denying the lurid and magnetic appeal of the relationship at hand. Because smoldering Auteuil (the hunchback Ugolin in Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring) appears to be three decades the senior of wanton Paradis (dewy French pop icon), there's more than a whiff of Pygmalion -- or even Lolita -- in the Gallic, phallic air about them. On the other hand, the knife man is impotent unless he's performing, and the real sexual predator is Adele, as she explains, "Boys attract me like beautiful clothes -- I always want to try them on." It would be too easy (and trite) to dismiss Girl on the Bridge as sexist and exploitative, for the "dominant" male here is as weak and wounded as the "submissive" female; while she's busily servicing every young buck with doe eyes, he's dismissing himself as a "fairy," cheating and gambling his way through the material world. In essence, behind the trappings, we're observing the vagaries of vagrants. Thank goodness they're witty.
Other parallels offer a fuller definition; this film could rightly be called a grittier take on the generation-gap romance of Masayuki Suo's lovely Shall We Dance? Also, with its Felliniesque appetite for circus glamour and debauchery, it's impossible not to appraise the story as a redemptive version of La Strada. (Note to Hollywood: No remakes necessary! Just give these movies wide distribution! Thank you!) Shot in poetic black-and-white by Jean-Marie Dreujou and drenched in an eclectic soundtrack of Benny Goodman, Marianne Faithful and Noro Morales, Leconte's film offers us an unusual and provocative dream of love. True, the sessions of knife-throwing grow redundant after a while, but, in a story of life and love, they may also be the movie's most accurate metaphor.
In French with English subtitles.