The strange love affair that rules Patrice Leconte's Girl on the Bridge is full of old-fashioned European art-movie attractions. The young heroine, Adele (pop singer and Chanel model Vanessa Paradis), is a delicate, doe-eyed woman-child who can't tell love from sex and is so melancholy that she wants to leap into the Seine. The world-weary hero, Gabor (veteran actor Daniel Auteuil), is twenty years older, calls himself a "manic-eccentric" and has an exceptionally romantic job: He's a world-class knife-thrower who's used to playing well-dressed rooms from Monte Carlo to Moscow. If that isn't continental enough for you, there's this: Adele and Gabor become partners in his death-defying act, take it on the road and develop a mystical communion that brings them shared luck. Through sheer force of will, she guides his hurled blades past her pretty ears and scenic torso; by ESP, he transmits to her the right plays at roulette and the winning choice of Italian lottery tickets.
This all happens in unglamorous black-and-white, which, of course, has an intellectual glamour all its own. Make no mistake, America: You're taking in a fairy tale here, but this is also l'art du cinéma. It's as though François Truffaut's old tragic-romantic instincts have collided with a revival of Fellini's earthy grotesquery.
The whole enterprise feels a bit overcalculated and self-consciously arty. But if you're willing to give Leconte and his writer, Serge Frydman, the benefit of a few doubts, there's a lot to like in Bridge in the way of quirks and originality. For one thing, the business of the knife-throwing is so obviously symbolic and sexually charged that the Freud Society would do well to book the act at its next convention. Then there's the comic potential of Adele's promiscuity. "Life starts when you make love," she declares, sounding exactly like some free-spirited seeker from a slightly naughty French farce of the 1950s. To be sure, her carnal choices are random -- a busboy, a young soldier on a train, a contortionist in a leopard suit who can stick his ankle in his mouth and do God knows what else. So aimless and fatalistic is our Adele that she even goes for a sleek Greek on an ocean liner (Demetre Georgalas) -- little matter that he's on his honeymoon. Her justification is philosophical, at least in a pop-existential kind of way: "I'm waiting for something to happen to me."
Girl on the Bridge
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What happens to her, as far as we are concerned, is that she starts to grow up and understand the ambiguities of adult life. But this happens as if by magic, through her odd relationship with the well-traveled Gabor. The old saw about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts applies in spades here: Together, Adele and Gabor are not just a dazzling theater act (he takes to throwing blindfolded!) but a wellspring of transcendence. In Monaco, they wow the swells with their daring and relieve the casino of a small fortune. In San Remo, they get another set of great notices and win a sports car in a raffle. On board a cruise liner, Gabor spins his new partner round and round on the famous "wheel of death" and never misses a beat with his daggers. So what if the ship is pitching and heaving? He needs her as much as she needs him.
What these putative lovers don't have is sex -- at least, not in the conventional sense. They work themselves into an erotic frenzy on stage ("It's not the thrower that counts, it's the target!" Gabor reveals), but they never take to bed, and in that lies both the film's central irony and the germ of a tragedy. What we have here is what the French like to call a folie à deux, a coupling full of wrongheaded co-dependence. We know, almost from the start, that these two are destined for each other, but they can't handle the pressures. Inevitably, the partnership breaks up. Luckily, the magical bond that joined it does not, and that provides a most satisfying, otherworldly denouement, enacted on a bridge in Istanbul. As an earlier Frenchman, Blaise Pascal, observed: "The heart has its reasons, which reason knows nothing of."
Director Leconte is no stranger to complex lessons in love, obsession and social mores. His earlier films include the haunting Monsieur Hire, in which a shy voyeur is unjustly accused of murder, and the ultra-observant Ridicule, which dissected eighteenth-century hypocrisy in the Palace of Versailles. As always, Leconte is concerned here with obsessive emotion and half-grasped truth. Girl on the Bridge may look and feel like a French movie from the '60s -- all pose and technique -- but in the end we come away with something universal, something like a finely tuned romantic mystery that strikes at the heart of all human relationships. Not only that, we get some unexpected doses of Benny Goodman's clarinet and an inspired use of Brenda Lee's old teen-trash hit "I'm Sorry."
As for the players, they are just about perfect. The aptly named Paradis, who's leaped off the pages of Vogue and the pop charts to undertake a movie-acting career, has far more weight (emotionally, that is) than you might expect from a model, and Auteuil, whose big, soulful eyes and aquiline nose suggest both Truffaut and Charles de Gaulle, remains one of Europe's most expressive interpreters. He's probably best known here for his extraordinary portrayals of the hunchback in Jean de Florette and Manon of the Spring, Claude Berri's wildly successful film versions of the Marcel Pagnol novels, but there's almost no major French director who hasn't employed him over the decades. In Girl, he's exactly right as a lost soul who, we come to learn, is even more lost than the girl he saves. Whenever the film grows arch or pretentious, he brings it back to earth.T