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“Boys attract me like beautiful clothes—I can’t wait to try them on,” says Adele (Vanessa Paradis) in the lingering, matter-of-fact monologue that opens Patrice Leconte’s ravishing romantic fable.
The luckless Adele is a gap-toothed charmer, shruggingly apathetic about her almost involuntary promiscuity, philosophical about her chances for real love. Released from mysterious questioners and finding herself with no place to go, she contemplates a last option: heaving herself into the Seine. But a passer-by—who looks none too sound himself—makes her, if not a better offer, an alternate one: She can toy with death by working as a target in his knife-throwing act.
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All the elements of a journey that believes itself to be magical are in place the moment Gabor (Daniel Auteuil) shimmers into being on that iconic Parisian span, a place between places. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s maligned and mistreated One From the Heart, Girl on the Bridge promises a quirky romance between misfits that will transform the tawdry glamour around them into something genuine and concrete. But whereas Coppola’s loserish pair works alchemy on Las Vegas’ melancholy rhinestones against fierce odds, Leconte takes his diamonds for granted. His fey thematic dependence on love-as-luck presupposes sensual glory for Gabor and Adele the second they meet—their neuroses are so perfectly suited to one another’s that we feel no triumph in their connection.
For Adele, a girl who curses a lifetime of bad luck, Gabor is a game of chance himself. Hangdog but sly, he’s a shifty man with steady hands and a sideline in moonstruck metaphysics. He makes Adele over as a slinky silent-film diva; with her strong jaw and chic long limbs, she’s an updated Lulu—heedless, irresistible, driven more by instinct than smarts. Their romance is a heady mixture of faith and doubt, absent of sex per se but brimming with overheated metaphors of anticipation and penetration. Their confluence crackles most vividly in their stage act—she trembles under a sheet, anticipating the kunk of knives; he throws carefully at first, then begins lobbing his weapons with dazzling fluidity.
As they embark on a whirlwind spree of performances in gemlike seaside towns from the Cote d’Azur to Istanbul, Gabor and Adele chalk up this passion-at-a-remove to luck—and their luck only improves. After each exhausting bout, during which Adele teeters breathlessly on the brink of self-obliterating trust, they purge the tension by taking one risk after another. After they enter a raffle and win, Gabor has Adele installed in a casino in which he is no longer welcome, racking up huge wins with the help of the telepathic communication the pair has developed.
Leconte is a connoisseur of the subtle: the deep gloss of black-and-white photography at its most luscious and harmonically lit, the hang of a shimmering shift on Paradis’ elegant shoulders, the silhouette of romance that Gabor and Adele’s connection, not a romance itself, casts. But if the visual expression of his sensibility is flawless, the dialogue version is trying. In fairy-tale fashion, the couple spout a lot of soulful faux metaphysical guff about luck, fate, and chance. Leconte indulges these reveries with operatic swoons from the camera and a hothouse soundtrack that includes two performances of Marianne Faithfull singing “Who Will Take Your Dreams Away?” while Adele writhes in a nightmare of ecstasy.
Girl on the Bridge has the look of a silent film and the feel of a musical; it might be more successful as either. Leconte shovels on the fairy dust, stuffing the screen with glittery chorus girls, clowns, and contortionists; sun-soaked seaside cafes; high-end casinos; expensive cruise ships; and a bizarre, disastrous wedding. It is this wedding that tempts Adele’s bad instincts to resurface, and the two are sundered. Gabor loses his touch and is left to take demeaning jobs in teeming, unsafe Istanbul while Adele sails away with another unworthy swain. But their psychic connection does not break, and in the film’s most unlikely scenes, they engage in mental conversation about each other’s motives and desires.
Girl on the Bridge pays homage to the beauty and glamour of great silent films, from the decadent casino of Pandora’s Box to the achingly simple story of love reclaimed in Jean Vigo’s impeccable L’Atalante. But French cinematic romances have become increasingly coy over the last seven decades, making the genre complacent—Girl on the Bridge knows where it’s going, and so do we. Absent the tartness and speed that marked his earlier films like Ridicule and Monsieur Hire, Leconte’s latest enchants but never surprises. CP