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A cinematic love letter to the sleazy Golden Eighties, writer-director Cedric Anger’s Paris Pigalle (L’Amour est une fete) takes us back to a time when coke, disco, easy women and unapologetically libidinous men were as easy to come by as a bad haircut.
It’s a picturesque setting for what basically plays out like a French Boogie Nights, with a comparable amount of sex, drugs, celluloid and music montages, but without compelling characters or conflicts. Gorgeously made yet strangely shallow, this retro tale of two undercover cops who infiltrate the Parisian porn and peep-show scene spends too much time celebrating the milieu it depicts: from the lure of nubile young girls to the scuzzy charms of the red-light district to the cocaine-infused reveries of guys who do whatever they want with few consequences.
Not that every story about sex (in this case paid-for pornographic sex) needs to be a morality tale, but Paris Pigalle seems to purposely avoid any sense of judgment, opting to showcase the good old times with zero comeuppance. The film lacks dramatic tension though it does have a few decent jokes, while Anger has such a good eye for the epoch — as he did for the 1970s in his previous feature, Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart — that you can just sort of sit back and watch his movie in a disco-fever trance. Whether or not that will spell sales outside of France is another matter.
Frequent collaborators Guillaume Canet (Tell No One) and Gilles Lellouche (Sink or Swim) star as Franck and Serge — or rather as Martin and Georges, depending on whether they’re using their covert identities as porn peddlers, or their real ones as detectives trying to crack down on money laundering in the adult entertainment biz.
As co-owners of a combination strip club-sex shop located just off the Place Pigalle in Paris, the two seem to be enjoying their brand-new sting operation a tad too much: Franck is slowly falling for the joint’s latest addition, a young and willing actress whose stage name is Caprice (Camille Razat), while Serge is snorting more blow than he — or the wife and children he keeps hidden far out in the suburbs — can handle.
The target of their investigation is a local smut king named Maurice (a perfectly deadpan Michel Fau), who steps in to help the pair out after their club gets ransacked by masked marauders. Maurice also invests in Franck and Serge’s latest movie project: an ambitious porno period piece directed by Henri Pachard (real-life French auteur Xavier Beauvois), who seems to consider himself the Francois Truffaut of skin flicks.
Anger does a good job building atmosphere in the film’s moody first half, with DP Thomas Hardmeier (Yves Saint Laurent) grazing his rouge-tinted lens across arched naked bodies and neon-lit streets while obscure disco jams blast on the soundtrack. Canet, sporting a bleached-blond blow-out coiffure, and Lellouche, who wears mutton chops big enough for a special at Outback Steakhouse, sink easily (perhaps too easily) into their roles as a pair of filthy lawmen who perfectly blend into the Pigalle scene. In fact, these Keystone cops seem to love their new gig so much that you start wondering whether they’re actually policemen at all, or why you should even care.
Shifting between downbeat thriller and nostalgic chronicle— there are echoes of Inherent Vice and The Good Guys here, as well as HBO’s The Deuce — the film teeters too far into farce territory during a closing section that has Franck and Serge supervising director Pachard’s X-rated shoot, with the usual gags (including a rather hilarious late turn from Quentin Dolmaire, My Golden Days) and hiccups on set. At this point, the sting plot has lost most of its weight, with Anger ultimately doubling down on the promise of his movie’s French title: to show that love, especially top-down love between the men in charge and the women who serve them, is indeed one long fete.
Such drawbacks doesn’t necessarily make Paris Pigalle a bad movie, and Anger’s sense of style goes a long way in rendering his flimsy, pulpy scenario watchable. Yet beyond all the period accoutrements and drugged-out vibe, it’s hard to see what he’s aiming for. This is an homage to the people behind the porn that misses its money shot.
Production companies: Sunrise Films, Curiosa Films, Mars Films, Umedia
Cast: Guillaume Canet, Gilles Lellouche, Michel Fau, Camille Razat, Xavier Beauvois, Elisa Bachir Bey, Quentin Dolmaire
Director, screenwriter: Cedric Anger
Producers: Anne Rapczyk, Olivier Delbosc
Executive producer: Christine De Jekel
Director of photography: Thomas Hardmeier
Production designer: Katia Wyszkop
Costume designers: Jurgen Doering, Laure Villemer
Editor: Julien Leloup
Composer: Gregoire Hetzel
Casting director: Nicolas Ronchi
Sales: Indie Sales
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