***½/**** Image C+ Sound B
starring Vanessa Paradis, Daniel Auteuil, Frédéric Pfluger, Demetre Georgalas
screenplay by Serge Frydman
directed by Patrice Leconte
by Walter Chaw Patrice Leconte's immaculately-constructed Girl on the Bridge is a lovely, hopelessly romantic little bauble that catches the light no matter how you turn it. The picture stars gamine Vanessa Paradis as Adèle, a suicide girl broken by the lack of a soul mate and a flurry of Parisian bedsheets contemplating a George Bailey-style leap off the edge of a bridge. Her Clarence is Gabor (Daniel Auteuil), a professional knife-thrower who trolls for winsome targets looking to ride the eternity express; and together they paint the world a Fellini shade of red. The similarity is more than cosmetic: in its carnival-of-life (or better, life-as-carnival) atmosphere, the romance that develops between Gabor and Adèle is sublimated into the act of extended, trembling foreplay--lots of knives hurled at naked thighs and only a few nicks here and there to show for it. The act of actual sex is seen as something less than penetrating (Adèle pillow-hops like an adrenalized bunny), but when the pair rushes off to an abandoned train car to be alone, true intimacy only comes once Gabor starts in with the cutlery. Breathless in love like P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love or Fellini's Nights in Cabiria (which likewise sports a woman of loose morals looking for love in Rome), Girl on the Bridge, Leconte's lightest confection, manages still to convey the director's themes of the mystery of luck as it governs chance meetings and meaningful hits and misses.
Another of 1999's great films, its closest American counterpart is Bronwen Hughes's cruelly underestimated Forces of Nature, another wonderful study of how love is as unpredictable and ferocious as a hurricane. The film fits into the year as a fin de siècles piece from the country that coined the conceit, obsessed as it is with identity and worried about the path behind while calamity looms like a storm front. More than a lot of the sad-bastard existentialism littering the United States that year (Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, Fight Club, Eyes Wide Shut, The Virgin Suicides, and on and on), though, Girl on the Bridge is about living in the absolute crystalline moment with the heedless recklessness of a bungee jumper. Adèle, with her gap-toothed smile, broad shoulders, and tiny waist, embodies a certain idealized notion of naughty-schoolgirl innocence, while Gabor, all strident Gallic screwball rat-tat-tat, verifies that the pair is meant as an end-of-millennia Colbert and Gable. It references It Happened One Night in one scene stranded outside a telephone booth as well as another Colbert flick (this one teaming her with Joel McCrea) during a jaunty shopping spree sprung from the The Palm Beach Story, though its moments of telepathy when its characters reveal that they don't function correctly in the universe without one another is unfiltered, delicious Leconte. Imagine a screwball farce directed by Wings of Desire-era Wim Wenders for an idea of the madness of the film's peppery, dialogue-dense tongue and its gorgeous--I mean it--black-and-white eye. I don't know that any of the places Girl on the Bridge goes (from Paris to Monaco to Italy to Greece) have ever looked quite this way; I do know that I've never seen a rainbow in black-and-white look so delicate and colourful. I shouldn't be surprised: I don't know that I've ever seen a film in colour look so black-and-white as Leconte's Man on the Train.
I had Jean-Pierre Jeunet's wicked Amélie described to me as "cinematic Prozac," which I didn't understand once I'd seen it (Amélie to me is--and this isn't a bad thing--poisonous), but I do think the term applies to Girl on the Bridge. Just a sequence where Gabor throws "blind" at a writhing, S&M-bound (and garbed, I should add) Adèle is enough to cause a rise from the most, in this film's vernacular, "depressive" viewer. If the erotic metaphor is clumsy, it is, at least, clumsy in the way that allegory or fable or anything not meant to be taken entirely literally must be a little clumsy--clumsy in the way that you want to overlook because the movie's so full of goodwill and passionate, cheesy expressions of love and devotion. Comes a point when you realize that all the clichés used to describe epiphanies and milestones are true--that those stupid expressions of wonder are the best way to articulate the miraculous connection people can develop each to each. What works about Leconte's work in general and Girl on the Bridge in particular is that beneath all the obvious hommage to Hollywood's ebullient '30s and '40s, beyond those references to the pantheon of surrealist film directors, and behind that gorgeous cinematography by long-time Leconte collaborator Jean-Marie Dreujou, there is this simple truth that when you fall in love with the person you're meant to be with, everything makes sense because nothing makes sense. Girl on the Bridge is wonderful.
It's a shame, then, that Legend Films shepherds Girl on the Bridge to belated Region 1 DVD in a single-layered, interlaced video transfer that preserves its 2.35:1 aspect ratio (ignore the 1.78:1 misprint on the back) in anamorphic widescreen but provides, lamentably, burned-in subtitles and digitization artifacts. The picture, so dependent on razor-sharp clarity, is blurry at times--which is at complete odds with my memory of seeing it on the big screen at CU's International Film Series--and often dim. Although some of the action occurs at night (one sequence is just a pair of headlights to the lower left of the screen), there's nothing dark about it. A scene where Gabor's eyes are blazed out in a line of white light is rendered well, but shots more subtle in their gradation suffer in the translation. And while the dialogue is light and delightful, I would have liked the option of turning off the subtitles, if only to better stare at Paradis in what is the most beautiful a woman can look in the movies. Part Winona Ryder, part Helena Bonham Carter, she's the idealized waif of every lonely boy's fantasy. The French Dolby 2.0 stereo audio is, however, absolutely adequate, if nothing special. There are no special features. Originally published: November 19, 2008.