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Out of all the guys in Paris, Ella — Stacy Martin’s waifish heroine at the heart of the romantic thriller Treat Me Like Fire (Joueurs) — definitely picked the worst one.
Sure, Abel (A Prophet star Tahar Rahim) is handsome and extremely charming when he wants to be, but he’s also a gambling addict and compulsive liar who leads Ella down a rabbit hole of terrible decisions. Together, the two are like Bonnie and Clyde without the guns and glamour, betting it all in clandestine Parisian casinos and illegal demolition derbies, living for the moment but indebting themselves to some very scary people. There’s no doubt things will end badly for them, and debuting director Marie Monge makes their rollercoaster love affair both seductive and irritating — the former because of the heated lead performances, the latter because you spend at least half the movie wondering why Ella doesn’t get the hell out of there.
Screening in Directors’ Fortnight, Fire plays like a loose and gritty urban take on movies like Badlands, True Romance or even Natural Born Killers, following a young couple that’s madly in love and gets caught up in Paris’ criminal underworld. It’s not always credible, especially in terms of human behavior, but there’s a stylized verve to the action that makes it fun to watch, while the filmmakers toss in a few good twists that pull the rug out from under you. The film could be perfect fodder for SVOD networks, with theatrical stints likely in France and other parts of Europe.
Ella is first seen managing her father’s bistro in the north of Paris. Although beautiful and mysterious on the surface, she looks utterly unhappy, slaving away at a dead-end job with no other prospects. And so when Abel pops by to make a wine delivery and then talks his way into getting hired as a waiter, only to rob the cash register a night later, Ella is both enraged and intrigued by his streetwise brashness and animal magnetism. She winds up following him to a gambling den downtown, where they make a quick fortune and Abel instructs her in the ways of the casino, — cue a Scorsese-style montage — after which the two fall head over heels for each other.
There are early signs that Abel is not, to say the least, a reliable guy, swindling Ella out of money they’re supposed to split between them. As sexy as he can be, his antics would have many women scrambling for the exits soon enough, but Ella keeps coming back for more. She’s clearly a sucker for punishment, and a big problem with the script (co-written by Monge and Julien Guetta) is that we never quite know why. Perhaps she’s too bored with life — but unlike say, Sissy Spacek in Badlands, she isn’t really young or naive enough to fall so many times for Abel’s tricks. And yet she does.
Martin (Nymphomaniac) plays her convincingly enough, even if one would like to see some sort of thought process beneath Ella’s surface. Rahim has an electric presence as a guy you often want to punch in the face, while a late monologue helps to partially justify his bad habits. The two actors create decent chemistry onscreen, although one keeps wondering why Martin’s character allows herself to become so degraded at the hands of her man. By the third act, Ella looks more like a heroin addict than a partner-in-crime.
If there’s a heavy and predictable star-crossed lovers side to the story, Monge throws in a few good surprises in the second half as the thriller element takes over, leading to some down-and-dirty late action sequences. These are artfully staged by the director and DP Paul Guilhaume (Ava), whose gritty handheld images capture the sodium-vapor beauty of Paris by night. Alongside the two leads, character actor Karim Leklou is a standout as Abel’s sad sack of a cousin — and yet another victim of his schemes.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production companies: The Film, Bac Films Production, Playtime Production
Cast: Stacy Martin, Tahar Rahim, Karim Leklou
Director: Marie Monge
Screenwriters: Marie Monge, Julien Guetta, with the collaboration of Romain Compingt
Producer: Michael Gentile
Director of photography: Paul Guilhaume
Production designer: Marion Burger
Costumer designer: Virginie Montel
Editor: Francois Quiquere
Composer: Nicolas Becker
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