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Slicing beauty

Leconte's erotic entendre rides on actor's good looks

Opens Aug. 18

There's something about a man with sharp knives. In Tod Browning's 1927 psychological carny yarn, The Unknown, a perverse relationship develops between Nanon (Joan Crawford), a woman terrified of men's arms, and Alonzo (Lon Chaney), the sword-thrower in love with his beautiful, screwed-up target. In a desperate bid to appeal to Nanon's limb-phobic "issues," Alonzo undergoes a radical body modification and has his arms amputated.

No such drastic events occur in Girl on the Bridge, though Patrice Leconte's breathless romance boasts its share of nicks and cuts. A similar psychosexual attachment develops between a miserable waif Adele (Vanessa Paradis), experiencing a run of terrific bad luck, and the man who spots her ready to jump from a bridge and makes her an offer she can't refuse. Seems Gabor (Daniel Auteuil) gets all his best "targets" for his sword-throwing act as they teeter on the brink of suicide. What better person to risk gouged eyes and impaled livers, after all, than a despondent beauty?

Gabor hands Adele back her self-worth as the well-dressed human target in his slice-and-dice cabaret act, a job that seems as much about belief as skill.

Like Astaire and Rogers, the pair work well together, so well in fact, that in lieu of sex scenes, there is an erotically charged knife-throwing scene in a deserted barn where Adele writhes in erotic pleasure. For a French movie, Girl is surprisingly devoid of scenes of lovemaking, which — along with its preference for vintage tunes by Brenda Lee and Benny Goodman — contributes to the movie's old-timey quality.

A loopy Pygmalion story about Gabor's transformation of the promiscuous, unhappy Adele into the epitome of Lady Luck, Girl on the Bridge is pure, buttery fantasy with all the attendant empty calories. Gabor's belief in Adele's good luck soon engulfs the film; she becomes fortune's magnet on their madcap tour of Europe, winning outrageously at the slot machines, at roulette, on a gig in Italy where she wins a zippy sports car in a lottery. But Adele can't kick her losing streak with men and takes off again and again with yet another love 'em and leave 'em stranger.

French pop star Vanessa Paradis is the plaintive Adele, whose Edie Sedgwick eyes and gap-toothed smile give her the slightly alien appearance of a gorgeous baby dressed in fashion model couture. Adele spends the first segment of Girl recounting her short, unhappy life bedding any man who professes his love, or at least his desire for a team of faceless experts. It takes a man like Gabor, of course, to break the vicious cycle of one-night stands by giving Adele something productive to do with her time — being assaulted with sharpened knives.

It is probably no great feat to make appealing a woman at the height of her sexual charm. It's more of a feat for Auteuil, upon whose craggy features gravity has stamped its indelible presence, to pull off the necessary Svengali-like sex appeal. Having to work harder, Auteuil comes off better, his ferociously intense expression and his increasingly frantic, eroticized knife-throwing makes it no real surprise when a flustered, lust-choked matron comes up to him after his cabaret act and begs to be his next target.

Women are suckers for a man who plays games and has the power to wound them. Girl makes knife throwing the ultimate metaphor for sexual passion — every time the pair stops at another venue (a Cote d'Azur nightclub or an Italian cruise ship), Gabor nicks her — but her faith in his abilities remains.

Girl's distinct ambiance flutters between glossy fashion-magazine fantasy and the ebullience of old Hollywood, courtesy of cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou's shimmering black-and-white photography. When Adele gives in to Gabor's offer and agrees to be his target, Gabor takes her on a Pretty Woman shopping spree whose culmination is Adele sashaying and swinging her hips in a succession of gowns. The scene has a manufactured Hollywood smarminess and makes it all too clear that 80 percent of Girl involves capitalizing on Paradis' physical charms.

Leconte's film never quite balances this often flashy hokiness and revelry in Paradis' cuteness with its more whimsical, intoxicating side: a retro, champagne-bubble attitude enhanced by the film's strange twists of fate and an air of giddy implausibility. A diverting, but slight romance, Girl is an art film where artfulness — and not story — rules, where ambiance and prettiness are meant to stand in for all the deeper psychologies and complications that this script toys with, but never penetrates.