All of director Patrice Leconte’s films are basically about alienation and obsession, although the theme is treated in very different ways–as psychological thriller (“Monsieur Hire”), magical romance (“The Hairdresser’s Husband”) or socio-political satire (“Ridicule”). His latest is basically a light-hearted romantic comedy, though, as befits the profession of its blade-wielding hero, it occasionally shows a sharp-edge; and while in general respects its plot arc is not unlike that of many Hollywood entries in the genre, its style, with jagged rhythms, loopy narrative non-sequiturs and swirling camerawork, is reminiscent of the early New Wave pictures of Truffaut and Godard.
“The Girl on the Bridge” opens with a gorgeous young woman (Vanessa Paradis) explaining her series of disappointing romantic encounters to an unseen interlocutor, and it’s not long before the suicidal lass is poised on a bridge preparing to end it all. Before she can jump, however, she’s accosted by a sad-faced, middle-aged man (Daniel Auteuil) who persuades her to become his assistant: he’s a knife-thrower, and needs someone to serve as a target who won’t be afraid of what might happen. She declines and dives into the river, but he goes in after her, and without too much difficulty he later persuades her that her luck has changed and they begin a highly-charged and dangerous partnership. It takes very little brains to realize that the fraught professional atmosphere between them is a metaphor for the fact that though they’re obviously enamoured of each other, they can’t commit; they enjoy an almost supernatural rapport (together, for example, they can’t lose at roulette, and they can communicate virtually telepathetically), but are still reluctant to join sexually, and eventually they split in a nearly-slapstick fashion. The result is predictable, and the denouement not much more surprising.
As the foregoing indicates, this is hardly a cerebral narrative, and the central conceit, in which a knife-throwing act becomes a metaphor for male-female relationships, is a pretty thin one. But the picture’s still a winning effort, due not only to Leconte’s visual pizzazz–the widescreen black-and-white photography has extraordinary elegance, and the camera movement and editing add great verve and energy–but also to his continuing penchant for accompanying the images with distinctive music, often of Turkish flavor, but here also including American pop tunes. Leconte can even take commonplace elements of the genre and give them a new spin: at one point, for instance, he tweaks what amounts to a standard music-video montage in which the man remakes his new assistant with a new hairstyle, cosmetics and clothes (something that wouldn’t have been out of place in “Pretty Woman”) by choreographing the episode in a twirly, New Wavey style and augmenting it musically to make it distinctive. The film also benefits from very engaging leads. Auteuil uses his hangdog face to charming effect, and Paradis is simply stunning, lighting up the screen beyond all measure.
Despite the watery symbolism that frequently pops up in “The Girl on the Bridge,” there’s little depth to the piece: it’s a frothy concoction which deal with issues of commitment and attraction in a way that’s ultimately no more profound than that to be found in Truffaut’s systematically overpraised “Jules and Jim.” But compared to conventional examples of the genre, it shows a lightness of style and a command of craft that makes it a delectable treat, if not a terribly filling one.
One final point: the picture is translated in white subtitles which, given the luminous black-and-white cinematography. are very often illegible against the background. In an instance such as this, encasing the dialogue within black boxes, or simply putting it in yellow rather than white, would be an intelligent move.