In its ongoing efforts to excavate the buried corners of contemporary art-house cinema, Cohen Media Group has dug up a pair of little-seen romantic dramedies from France’s Patrice Leconte, at one point among the most acclaimed and distributed directors worldwide. Felix and Lola and Love Street have been collected on a single, and gorgeously transferred, Blu-ray disc ($17.99, Cohen Film Collection).
Though rarely discussed in Leconte’s 50-year oeuvre, these features, released back-to-back in 2001 and 2002, were sandwiched between the director’s seminal bookends Girl on the Bridge (1999) and The Man on the Train (2002) — moody and stylish dramas that are among his finest critical and commercial successes. By all measures, both of these unearthed pictures should find the director in peak creativity. But while they clearly gestated from the same mind, only one captures a quintessentially Lecontian tone and sensibility; the other is an arch and cloying mutant — an errant misfire whose obscurity is justified.
Begin with Felix and Lola, and you’ll find yourself on firm, often masterfully directed footing. The movie opens with a combination of the sinuous and the crackerjack: A singer and his band perform a slow-burning ballad in a sparsely populated nightclub, a few dancers grooving to the narcotic swoon. Just as soon as the vocalist launches into a harmonica solo, he’s shot down by a lone gunman in the audience.
Cut to a brightly lit fairgrounds, where the eerie rock has been replaced by buoyant techno, and where the real danger of premeditated murder has given way to the artificial scares of a guy in a gorilla suit. We’ve evidently flashed back.
The handgun-wielding audience member from the previous scene is now running the fair’s bumper-car operation. His name is Felix (Philippe Torreton), and his gaze has captured a most unusual rider: a grown woman, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Lola, incongruent among the gaggle of excitable teenagers, her ambivalent expression giving away nothing. There is no dialogue for the first 10 minutes or so of Felix and Lola, with Leconte allowing their shared glances, both obvious and furtive, to tell the story; it’s almost balletic in its wordless elegance.
They meet soon after, with Felix clearly enraptured by Lola’s implacable beauty and presence, with Lola providing only the scantest breadcrumbs from her padlocked past. As is often the case with Gainsbourg’s onscreen persona, Lola is the epitome of mysterious French ennui, a poker face par excellence, a nut that Felix is determined to crack, even to his potential detriment.
They start an affair of sorts, even if Felix is kept at arm’s length, befuddled by her sudden getaways and unexplained behavior: darting away from a pair of headlights one night, or crying at a child’s painting of boats. And what’s with the two gentlemen, one well older than the other, who keep hanging around the carnival, fixing their eyes on Lola as intently as Felix did that first fateful day?
Felix and Lola is, refreshingly, not without its humor, much of it centered around its flavorful fairground setting, and the itinerant carnies who work it. “Acting the gorilla at 50 — what have I ever done for society? Create a vaccine?” muses one such performer as he removes his sweaty ape suit.
These comic asides are a welcome counter to Leconte’s slippery embrace of film-noir tropes. Is Lola a classic sociopathic femme fatale, manipulating Felix until she gets what she wants? Or is she crying for help in the only way she knows how? Leconte keeps us guessing, all the while reveling in the rich juxtapositions of the carnival’s cartoon dangers and staged thrills with the actual menace lurking in and around this candy-coated setting.
Love Street shares striking similarities with its predecessor but none of its intrigue. Both films begin with scenes that recur at the end of the movie; both involve characters soliciting a tarot card reader for romantic advice; both feature men taken by complicated women. And as its title suggests, Love Street boasts a setting as cinematically rich as the fun fair in Felix and Lola: A brothel that, by mid-film, has been shuttered by the puritanical government, leaving its sex workers to stroll the avenues for johns.
Patrick Timsit plays Louis, born to and raised by prostitutes and who now, as a grown man, has committed the cardinal sin of falling in love with one such new hire. This is Marion (Laetitia Casta), who commits her own cardinal sin of falling in love with a client. Louis, while wanting nothing more than to marry Marion, is subjected instead to functioning as her protector and Cyrano of sorts. He hopes to steer her in a better direction by arranging a handsome local to romance Marion, while enjoying at least the proximity to his beloved. But his selection of suitor, a two-bit criminal and degenerate gambler, leads invariably to trouble.
The elements are in place for a compelling intersection of sex, commerce and unrequited love, but Leconte’s stylistic approach is all wrong. He approaches the material with the whimsy of Wes Anderson, a style that doesn’t suit him. Some scenes are exaggerated to the point of parody. Insertions such as animated visions of air raids and fireworks (the movie is set during and after World War II), and sequences styled like a sepia-toned, flickering newsreel are pointlessly precious. Love Street is as frilly and decorated as the gaudy brothel interiors, and exhibits a less developed filmmaker’s tendency toward ostentation and camera trickery.
Finally, it simply tries too hard to please its audience. Even a death scene is too prettified. Love Street aspires ultimately to tragedy, but it’s not an effective one, because its burdensome affectations keep us from deeply engaging with the material.
Everyone is allowed to experiment, of course, and Love Street is just that. Leconte would regain his footing immediately, with The Man on the Train, released in the same year, netting $7.8 million and a boatload of awards.