LAmour Fou

Patrice Lecontes divine folly and Michael Winterbottoms faux-French soap

Patrice Leconte's Girl on the Bridge spins a tale of weird love between a waif with no luck at all and a performer who has grown accustomed to making his own. With that, the resemblance to Léos Carax's 1999 The Lovers on the Bridge ends: Carax's wantonly excessive mood piece made the case for unalloyed passion; Leconte's movie is a treatise on the link between art—well, artifice—and eros. Carax is an unrepentant drama queen; Leconte is a heavenly fool of a different stripe, a worldly ironist spiked with the vaudevillian's flair for the outrageous. Carax's hero was a feral fire eater with no sense of compromise; Leconte's is a knife thrower who, depending on your tolerance for opaque motivation, is either a professional exploiter or savior of women, very likely both.

Gabor (Daniel Auteuil) is in the habit of recruiting his stage assistants from the ranks of women on the verge, which is where he finds Adèle, a gap-toothed, hollow-eyed lost cause wearing a desperate shag that only the hallowed cheekbones of French pop star Vanessa Paradis could support. Adèle, who has spent her young life picking up dud men like pennies, is about to hurl herself into the Seine, and it's characteristic of Leconte's warped delirium that following Gabor's lecture on grandiosity, she goes ahead and jumps—and he after her. Thus bonded, the two haul off on a whirlwind of shopping and buffing and snipping, from which the ugly duckling emerges a twiggy, swan-necked beauty with eyes carefully kohled to flag tragedy and desire in equal measure.

That's the idea, for Gabor's act—circling the scantily clad Adèle with a volley of knives, often with his eyes shut —is crafted, like Leconte's film, on the principle that audiences will reliably swoon for a blend of terror and pleasure. That, he assumes, is what makes Adèle herself grow more orgasmic during every performance. Soon the pair is cutting a triumphant swath through the fleshpots of Monaco, plowing their daily good fortune into even luckier nights at the casinos. They make a charmed couple, yet they never sleep together, on Gabor's premise that eros can only sustain itself on celibacy. With time, inevitably, there's more than sex on Adèle's agenda, and in the subtle shifts of emotional power that follow, it becomes clear that the disconnected Gabor is more Henry Higgins than Svengali and that his Eliza Doolittle is at once more savvy and candid than her mentor about what's happening between them. It's she who cops to the true meaning of the tiny nicks that Gabor inflicts on her body every time they perform—he always finds a way to blame the tools—and as she remakes herself from a human target into an agent of her own future, it's she, not her handler, who comes to re-define the meaning of luck and how you make it. Mercifully, Adèle's idea of good fortune has nothing to do with a room somewhere, far away from the cold night air.

Early on in Girl on the Bridge, Gabor, ludicrously swaddled in a hospital thermal blanket after his dip in the Seine, swaps clinical diagnoses with another jumper, airily claiming his own pathology as "manic-eccentric." It's a fair enough summation of Leconte's sensibility, from the deadpan thriller Monsieur Hire to the unapologetically wacky The Hairdresser's Husband. Aware, perhaps, that for a filmmaker, the habit of eccentricity can get to be a busy excuse for having nothing to say, Leconte made a successful bid for intellectual respectability with the historical drama Ridicule, although even that film bore the marks of its creator's gift for goofball. So it is with Girl on the Bridge, whose jaunty score and dry wit undercut solemnity at key moments of potential mawkishness. Yet Leconte's continuing enjoyment of the perverse is tinged with wild romance and mature sorrow—the brazenly Felliniesque circus scenes relax into a dreamy, wistful opulence more reminiscent of Marcel Carné's Les Enfants du Paradis, and the movie's silvery black and white transform Auteuil, a classic Gallic heartthrob, into a saggy Harry Dean Stanton with an undertone of pleading despair in his baggy, intense eyes that plays beautifully off the gaga innocence of Paradis. Girl on the Bridge leaves you with a bland message—titillation may get your wicky-wack going, but love and partnership stay the course—but the way it gets you there is divine.

Wonderland, a long weekend in the life of a South London working-class family no more or less troubled than any other in the new Britain, isn't a French film, but it behaves like one. The director, Michael Winterbottom, styles himself a poetic realist with a dash of New Wave; his French screenwriter, Laurence Coriat, was inspired by Altman's Short Cuts. Together, they've lavished some pretty fancy film work on what is essentially a very long episode of the beloved English soap EastEnders, which you can catch here on public television. The premise—Forster's "only connect"—is that of all soap opera, and the movie centers on three sisters scrabbling to get and keep their lives together. Nadia (played with appealing forthrightness by Gina McKee, last seen in Croupier) is a kindly waitress who wears her hair in two Björkish knobs and who's fruitlessly looking for love in the personals. The heavily pregnant Molly (Canadian actress Molly Parker) has momentarily lost track of her live-in lover (John Simm), who's drowning in early midlife crisis. Debbie (Shirley Henderson), the eldest, is a hard-partying hairdresser and single parent with a tongue as sharp as her features. In the background lurk a prodigal son and a brace of defeated parents (ably played by veteran television actor Jack Shepherd and Kika Markham, a former glamourpuss of the British screen best-known for her role as Anne in Truffaut's Two English Girls, here gallantly slackening herself into the dumpy slouch of a disappointed woman) squabbling tiredly over who is the more pathetic.

Winterbottom has used two of Mike Leigh's actors (McKee played one of David Thewlis' female victims in Naked, Henderson, the drink-sodden actress in Topsy-Turvy), and there are unmistakable shades of Leigh—and way before him, Dickens—in the way the movie piles up domestic detail as the sisters stumble through the weekend. With acting as good as this (Ian Hart has a nicely slimy turn as Debbie's immature ex), Wonderland gives you all the expected pleasures of eavesdropping on the intimate lives of others. But I suspect Leigh might snort at the hand-held vérité, the speedup and slow-mo, the snappy editing and the trendily plaintive score by Michael Nyman (who did the same for The Piano). I have no doubt that Winterbottom, who aside from the mean-spirited Butterfly Kiss, which showed off Amanda Plummer at her self-indulgent worst as a lesbian psycho, has made his name with worthy social dramas like Welcome to Sarajevo and Go Now, means well—he wants to shine a little dignity on people who otherwise lead scruffy, unlovely lives—but he's trying way too hard and speaking from a great height, like a genial lord of the manor, beaming as he shows you around the newly renovated servants' quarters.

GIRL ON THE BRIDGE was Directed by PATRICE LECONTE; Written by SERGE FRYDMAN; Produced by CHRISTIAN FECHNER; and stars Daniel Auteuil and Vanessa Paradis. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana; WONDERLAND was Directed by MICHAEL WINTERBOTTOM; Written by LAURENCE CORIAT; Produced by MICHELE CAMARDA and ANDREW EATON; and stars Gina McKee, Molly Parker and Shirley Henderson. Now playing at Edwards Town Center, Costa Mesa.

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