She (Vanessa Paradis) is a girl named Adele, barely into her 20s, confused and tired of ricocheting from bed to bed. Perched on the edge of a Parisian bridge, she gazes down at the Seine, hoping to find the courage to end it all.
He (Daniel Auteuil) is Gabor, a haggard, middle-aged guy who's a knife thrower by trade. He talks her out of jumping - so she can become his assistant, the model he throws the knives at and misses by millimeters.
Unlike the other guys she has known, Gabor doesn't want to get her into bed. Au contraire. She has that special something, he explains, that can bring him luck. Such a je ne sais quois is important for the carnival audiences: "They must fall in love with you."
Only in a French movie.
Admit it: The very things we mock about French films are the things we love about them. There's that Gallic love of camp music (in this movie, directed by Patrice Leconte, it's Brenda Lee singing "I'm Sorry" and Marianne Faithful with "Who Will Take My Dreams Away?"). And the French penchant for the exotic: In "The Girl on the Bridge," filmed dramatically in black and white, the camera swings jazzily from carnivals to casinos to Greek bazaars.
There's also that unconventional sexiness: In French movies, great-looking women hook up with old ugly guys. And only in a French movie would a guy say to a girl he just met, "Your breasts look cuddly. Something good is going to happen to you," and would the girl respond with a smile of anticipation. (That happens in "The Girl on the Bridge.")
A cloud of despair hangs over the beginning of "The Girl on the Bridge." These are two gamblers who have nothing to lose.
But the story turns quickly exotic and heady, with our heroes traveling from place to exotic place, including Istanbul and Monte Carlo. The movie has a euphoric spinning motion, from the camera angles to the roulette wheel that makes Adele absurdly rich to the wheel on which Adele spins as Gabor lobs knives at her. Adele's promiscuity, too, suggests some dizziness. It betrays her low self-esteem, but even Gabor has to laugh at how she returns the leers of everybody from a swarthy waiter to a carnival contortionist wearing a skin-tight leopard suit. (Don't risk going for popcorn, lest you miss a hilarious scene in which she and the cat man cavort.)
Being a French movie, she develops erotic feelings for Gabor (the scenes of her writhing arousedly, as the knives sing past her skin, is a bit much). But her growing passion for the knife thrower is foiled by her nymphomania. Laconte, who explored obsession in the past with such films as "Ridicule" and "The Hairdresser's Husband," seems to have conceived "The Girl on the Bridge" more as a wild tempera picture than a delicate watercolor. It's vivid, bursting with atmosphere. In the end, that's what makes the movie cheery in a skewed kind of way. Paradis and Auteuil, with their dark, darting eyes, look death in the face. But the movie's too full of life to be pessimistic.
THE GIRL ON THE BRIDGE *** 1/2
STARRING: Vanessa Paradis, Daniel Auteuil, Nicola Donato
DIRECTOR: Patrice Leconte
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
RATING: R for some sexuality
THE LOWDOWN: A knife thrower teams up with a desperate young woman he finds on a bridge.