Tender Is The Knife

Eroticized Knife-Throwing Sessions Bring French Cinema Up To The Bar.

MY GOOD FRIEND Herr Professor Doktor Samuel Slote, noted literary critic and author of The Silence in Progress of Dante, Mallarmé, and Joyce, wrote the following haiku, which, I think, neatly summarizes everyone's attitude towards the French:

God I love the French

God I really love the French

Thank God for the French.

(Oddly, it retains the haiku format when translated into French: Dieu j'aime la France/O Dieu, que j'aime la France/Grâce à Dieu, la France!)

The French are, contrary to some lowbrow opinions, an extremely polite and attractive people, who welcome visitors to their country with a good deal of cheer. They're also a great source of refinement and culture. They also make a lot of mediocre movies.

It wasn't always so, but sometime in the '80s the French became overly enamoured of a certain storyline involving a man with an obsessive fixation on a beautiful but blank woman, an obsession that always ended up with one of them dead or destroyed. Repeated in otherwise excellent films like The Hairdresser's Husband, A Heart in Winter and White (and several dozen not-so-excellent films like Betty Blue and Monsieur Hire), this particular plot eventually got a bit tiresome.

It wasn't only the repetition of this same tragic love story that was weighing down French cinema; the French cinéastes of late have also been largely devoid of a self-conscious sense of humor. Well, actually, the French in general are not the funniest people on earth. Their idea of hilarious is Jacques Tati, who's sort of like Jerry Lewis on opium. A Tati film would feature Tati falling down repeatedly for about two hours. After the third or fourth spill you pretty much hope he's not getting up again.

So Girl on the Bridge comes as something of a double surprise: Not only is it funny, but it makes fun of the standard French film plot of the '80s and '90s. Instead of relying on humor coming from a man who repeatedly falls down, Girl on the Bridge is an actual example of French satire, something that hasn't really made much of a splash since Voltaire. (And even then ...)

Girl on the Bridge starts with Adèle (Vanessa Paradis, best known outside of France as Johnny Depp's current love-thing), who is a girl (insofar as a 22-year-old woman is a girl) on a bridge. Because she is in a film, and because this is a French film, Adèle is both troubled and beautiful. Thus, she must immediately encounter the man with whom she will have the tragic and obsessive romantic relationship.

Enter Gabor (Daniel Auteuil, who starred in Heart in Winter and is a guy who could be compelling to watch even if he was in a full body cast and giving a monologue about wood shavings). He offers Adèle a job, explaining that in his line of work he must find his assistants on bridges and ledges, as he is a carnival knife thrower.

From there, they go through the motions of the standard romance, except that there's no romance between them. Adèle sluts around with everyone but Gabor, and Gabor seems to have no interest in sex, but the two behave in every other way as lovers. The romantic tension between them, while played for laughs, is as thick as Jesse Ventura's neck.

In lieu of love scenes, there are the extremely eroticized knife-throwing sessions, which are somehow both hilariously silly and legitimately sexy. Gabor and Adèle bond hopelessly, of course, and then separate, of course, and then etc., but always with a slight twist on the boilerplate version of the French romance.

Perhaps, with the English and Americans dominating the romantic comedy genre, the French were finally compelled to respond in kind; only, by virtue of seeing all the crap that the Anglophone world was putting on the screen, they were also able to one-up us and make fun of themselves at the same time.

Girl on the Bridge was directed by Patrice Leconte, who also directed one of the few funny French comedies of the last 10 years, Ridicule. Like Ridicule, Girl on the Bridge starts out strong, then drags a bit, then picks up again. But hey, c'est la vie. Oddly, Leconte also directed A Heart in Winter, one of the paradigm films of the French Tragic Romance genre. A Heart in Winter is so serious that, upon first seeing it, I thought it occasionally bordered on unintentional self-parody. Now I'm thinking that maybe it was a comedy.

Although it's somewhat uneven, one place where Girl on the Bridge never falters is in its cinematography. Presented in glorious black and white by director of photography Jean-Marie Dreujou, it features lots of hand-held shots, wide-angle lenses, and an amateur feel to certain scenes that combine to create a truly fresh photographic vision.

Of course, things that are beautiful to look at are a hallmark of French culture, so one expects as much from a French film. Girl on the Bridge, however, manages to combine the visual treats with well-aimed satire, which is, as the French say, "cool."

Girl on the Bridge is playing at Catalina (886-0616).