Girl on the Bridge, The (La Fille sur le pont) (France, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's ironic that a motion picture designed as mainstream, commercial entertainment in France will be viewed as an art house film during its American run. The movie in question is Patrice Leconte's The Girl On the Bridge, which made more than $20 million during its theatrical run in its native country (an astounding box office tally). However, because it is in black-and-white and has subtitles, the film has been acquired for U.S. distribution by Paramount's foreign and independent division, Paramount Classics, and will play primarily to upscale audiences who aren't intimidated by the experience of reading while watching a movie.

The Girl On the Bridge follows standard romantic comedy guidelines with some interesting variations and rhythms. There are those who will immediately assume that because the film is French, it must contain deep philosophical musings, but that's not really the case. Leconte, working from a script by Serge Frydman, tickles the underbelly of things like fate and chance, but he never does much with these weighty issues. They are present as plot devices; this is not a deep exploration of the existential aspect of humanity's nature. Instead, it's a quirky love story that appeals more to the emotions than to the intellect.

With the exception of a few supporting characters who make brief appearances, this is essentially a two-character movie. Adele (Vanessa Paradis) is a down-on-her-luck young woman who is convinced that she is afflicted with a Midas Touch in reverse. She's as unlucky in love as she is in life in general. A compulsive sex addict, she sleeps with almost any man she has eye contact with, but she falls in love easily and has had her heart broken on multiple occasions. Eventually, after deciding that things aren't going to get better, she walks out on a bridge crossing the Seine and prepares to jump. That's when she meets Gabor (Daniel Auteuil), who changes the course of her life.

Gabor is a professional knife-thrower, and he offers Adele an alternative to suicide: become his assistant (a position which, he insists, might lead to the same end). She agrees, and the two begin a successful partnership. Of course, they fall in love, but neither admits it. Adele continues her trysts with attractive men, and, although she and Gabor never consummate their relationship, they develop a deep psychic bond (they can hold conversations over long distances) and their knife-throwing exhibitions mimic sex in every way possible (except that they're not touching). Best of all, when they're together, they have tremendously good luck. But, when their paths diverge, their fortunes begin a downward spiral.

The Girl On the Bridge is undoubtedly an artistic endeavor, but it is in no way obscure. The central metaphor - that of knife-throwing standing in for sex - is so obvious that it's impossible to miss (if nothing else, Paradis' orgasmic moans give it away). From a visual standpoint, The Girl On the Bridge is beautifully composed. The black-and-white cinematography is stunning. Leconte cleverly intermixes a variety of camera techniques ranging from the hand-held approach of cinema verite to the crane and helicopter shots of big studio productions. There are a large number of close-ups, but their placement is carefully chosen. The camera loves Paradis, and it's an experience to see her face gazing down from the big screen (especially since the movie was made in wide-screen). And Auteuil's features express emotions that his voice and dialogue never betray.

Of the two stars, the 40 year-old Auteuil is by far the better known performer. Next to Gerard Depardieu, he is arguably France's most recognizable leading man, having appeared in dozens of movies, many of which have received international distribution. His subtle, effective work in The Girl On the Bridge won him a Cesar Award for Best Actor (his fifth nomination and second victory). Paradis, on the other hand, is not an established thespian. Her fame - and she is known world-wide - comes primarily from her singing career. Acting is a new field, but she acquits herself admirably, and it doesn't hurt that she has the kind of natural charisma that can camouflage a host of minor flaws. Like her co-star, she received a Cesar nomination for her performance here; unlike him, she did not win.

The director, Leconte, has an international reputation. He is best known for a trio of features: Monsieur Hire, The Hairdresser's Husband, and Ridicule. The Girl On the Bridge is different from all three, although its closest cousin is The Hairdresser's Husband. Both are romantic fables; however, there is considerably more heft and melodrama in the earlier movie. The Girl On the Bridge is lighter and more humorous. Upon its French release, Leconte was blasted by a number of French critics. His response, which disagreed with the assertion that a commercially successful motion picture could not have artistic merit, touched off the latest brouhaha in French cinema. As much as at any time in the past, the question of art vs. entertainment has become a source of fodder for French critics and pundits.

If subtitles were not so feared in the United States, The Girl On the Bridge might become one of the summer's biggest hits - an unpretentious romantic comedy that revels in the exuberance of new love. However, because it is not in English, the movie will never reach a wide American audience. But, for those who aren't scared off by the thought of entertainment in a different language, a rewarding experience awaits. The Girl On the Bridge is an appealing diversion.

Girl on the Bridge, The (La Fille sur le pont) (France, 1999)

Director: Patrice Leconte
Cast: Vanessa Paradis, Daniel Auteuil
Screenplay: Serge Frydman
Cinematography: Jean-Marie Dreujou
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Classics
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2000-07-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: English subtitled French
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1