Saturday, June 11, 2005

Fresh Bait (L'Appat)

Bertrand Tavernier has been a successful director in France since the 1970's, but his work has never really taken off in America. I vaguely recall hearing of his 1987 film The Passion of Beatrice, but I think that's because it features an extended nude scene with Julie Delpy, rather than its artistic merit. So, suffice it to say, I have never seen one of the man's films.

But now I'll have to, because his 1995 thriller Fresh Bait arrives on DVD this Tuesday for the first time in America, and it's really quite exceptional. Tavernier's film thematically is very similar to Larry Clarke's detestable Bully of a few year's back. It's based on a true story involving a nihilistic cadre of young people engaging in violent, criminal behavior for no apparent reason.

In the case of Bully, Clarke seems more focused on obsessively filming the nude, lithe bodies of stars like Michael Pitt and Bijou Phillips. When he attempts to address real social issues - like teen drug abuse, date rape and the foster care system - his movie crosses over from cheesy, somewhat questionable softcore into a full-on parody of itself.

But in Fresh Bait, Tavernier has attacked the problem from a different angle. Rather than go for shock, encouraging the audience to judge these kids as amoral or psychotic, Tavernier seems to indict a shallow and hopelessly materialist society in the crimes. There's something wrong with kids who could behave in such a reckless and gruesome a fashion, but there's someting wrong with a world that gives them so few appealing alternatives.

It's a fascinating and haunting vision, an intense and carefully crafted thriller that easily exceeds the other films in its sub-genre.

Director Tavernier has written a few books on American film, and Fresh Bait references American crime thrillers constantly. Its protagonists are obsessed with American movies (in one scene, they go to a video store and staunchly reject renting anything French, opting instead for Nightmare on Elm Street 6). In fact, their drive to become criminals in some ways derives from a desire to emulate movies heroes like Al Pacino in Scarface (a film they've watched so many times, they can quote it by heart).

Eric (Oliver Sitruk) and his girlfriend Nathalie (Marie Gillain) dream of going to America to open up a clothing boutique. Eric's a rich kid whose father has recently cut him off, due to his refusal to get a job. Nathalie has a somewhat happier home life, but still seems aimless and adrift. She works at a clothing store and, by night, romances older men in the hopes of meeting someone who will make her a star. But rather than any passion for performance, it's clear that what drives Nathalie is a taste for finery. She likes the men less because they can actually help her with a non-existant career, but because they shower her with gifts, praise and attention and provide her access to the secret world of high society.

Along with Eric's roommate and friend Bruno (Bruno Putzulu), they plan the entire American enterprise out to every last detail, and determine that 10 million francs will be needed for the venture. Using Nathalie as the "bait" of the title, they hope to sneak into her wealthy suitors apartments while she's being seduced in the bedroom and rob their victims blind.

Unfortunately, it never quite works out that way. Sometimes, the gentleman has made plans outside of the house for the evening. Other times, the guy lives in a high rise and the front door has a password. And a few times, the guys resist being robbed and things turn violent. Some otf the scrapes the trio get into are funny, some are decidedly more serious, but none of them end in the acquisiton of enough money for a trans-Atlantic flight, let alone seed money for a clothiers.

What's surprising is how many times this group is willing to give it a go. Surely a day job would be preferable to an endless string of failed, nighttime robberies. I was kind of reminded, both in terms of content and style, of some of Wong Kar-Wai's films about impetuous criminal urban youth. This is kind of like a French Fallen Angels or Chungking Express, but with nihilism in place of whimsy. So, in other words, like a French Fallen Angels or Chungking Express.

And though it may sound like these are simply awful, spoiled kids, the narrative is a good deal more complex than that. First off, there are no positive figures for the viewer to admire or respect. All of these men trying to get into Nathalie's pants are either scummy or pathetic. One of them, who winds up begging for his life by appealing to his attacker's Judaism, tells of buying all his nice possessions on bad credit, and seeing his five year old child only on holidays. Nathalie's mom leaves the house at night, with her young daughter home alone. And Eric's parents have coddled him his entire life, and now cut him off without any guidance, without any life experience and without a dime.

As well, the world these three inhabit is not exactly inviting. Several times, Nathalie is almost raped by lustful older men. Bruno tells of growing up alone and homeless, sleeping under stairwells. And Tavernier's nimble direction enhances this sense of paranoia. His uses long, jumpy pans to disorient the viewer and play with timing. He shoots scenes entirely in mirrors, sometimes not revealing that you're seeing a reflection until the action is over. The idea is that this is environment weights down on these characters, threatens them, and they see escape as the only resort. They will do what must be done to succeed.

Eric refers to himself repeatedly as an entrepeneuer, and the film is filled with capitalist language and business analogies. In some ways, it reminded me of Bigas Luna's similarly brilliant and satirical Golden Balls, in which Javier Bardem's hungry young man views the personal accumulation of status and wealth as the noblest of human endeavors. Eric and Nathalie are propelled by a sense of entitlement that's both unspoken and overwhelming. They are here, they want all of these expensive things, and why should they be deprived of them? When these perverted old men are allowed to be rich, why are charming and beautiful young people like themselves destined to remain poor?

So it's a thoughtful movie, but mainly it's just compelling. Well-performed, snappily directed and, of course, as with almost all French movies, a good deal sexier and more lively than its American counterparts. Well, unless you consider close-ups of Bijour Phillips' vulva to be "sexy," in which case Bully might have this one beat.


Sabrina Suk Wai Ma said...

Hi Crushed by Inertia,

Like your review on L'Appat! Just saw the movie and I share most of your views. I may check out Larry Clarke's movie too. Thanks for the well-done writing!

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