The Girl on the Bridge (La Fille sur le pont)
Produced by Films Christian Fechner and France 2 Cinéma
Directed by Patrice Leconte
Screenplay by Serge Frydman
Released by Paramount Pictures

Saving Grace
Produced by Homerun Productions and Portman Entertainment Group
Distributed by Fine Line Features
Directed by Nigel Cole
Screenplay by Mark Crowdy and Craig Ferguson

Steal This Movie!
Produced by Ardent Films and Greenlight Productions
Directed by Robert Greenwald
Screenplay based on books by Anita and Abbie Hoffman
Distributed by Lions Gate Films Inc.

Ever since Blaise Pascal made his wager on the infinite, it seems the French have been gridlocked at the intersection of chance and choice. In a universe of incalculable odds, how should a person place his bet? In his artful—but never artsy—film, The Girl on the Bridge, director Patrice Leconte takes up Pascal’s challenge and, without abandoning its metaphysics, gives it a decidedly this-worldly turn. The result is an existential romantic comedy in the Gallic mode. If this sounds deep dish, remember that depth makes the soufflé rise.

The film’s recipe begins with its surreal opening scene. We meet Adele, played by Vanessa Paradis, looking as grave as she is lovely. She is being interviewed or, perhaps, deposed by an unseen woman as a gallery of middle-aged men look on. It seems she’s giving a personal accounting to an anonymous officialdom, a sort of apologia to the world at large. Assuming life only begins when you start making love, she explains that she left home as soon as she could find a boy to live with. But things haven’t worked out as she had supposed. Her boyfriend didn’t stay around very long, and his successors have proven equally faithless. “I get conned every day of my life,” Adele complains bitterly. “Hands are tricky,” she elaborates. “They can make you believe anything.” Having passed through so many, she knows thereof she speaks. Her realization, however, hasn’t helped her: “Boys attract me like clothes. I always want to try them on.” Conceding the folly of her promiscuity, she blames herself more than the perfidious parade of men who have trampled on her sexual generosity. “I am like a vacuum; I pick up all the dirt around.”

So, we are not entirely surprised when in the next scene, Adele decides (at the advanced age of 21) to throw herself into the Seine. As she stands on the bridge hesitating, Gabor, a middle-aged carnival knife-thrower, comes along by chance—or is it fate? (This is Daniel Auteuil playing with litter conviction a man who is somehow both heroically intense and comically distracted, a Pasealian with one eve on the moment and the other on eternity.) “You seem to be about to make a mistake,” Gabor remarks, seemingly unimpressed by her desperation. Adele tries to dismiss his interruption but cannot help being intrigued by his nonchalance. It’s only when she plunges into the water—or does she fall?—that Gabor drops his pose and rushes to her rescue.

Once he’s fished her out, he makes a proposition. He’s looking for a new assistant. She could be the new target in his knife act. After all, given her present state of mind, she really hasn’t much to lose. Besides he has recruited many of his assistants from bridges such as this. “Burned out women are my specialty” he explains with a shrug. Needless to say, Adele is hooked. She surrenders herself to his hands and finds they’re quite unlike those she’s become used to. Rather than being tricky, they’re deft, assured, and, above all, respectful as he whisks her from dress shop to shoe store to beauty parlor, preparing her for her new role. The soundtrack booms with Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing” celebrating the pure romantic inventiveness of this episode in which she winsomely collaborates with his masculine decisiveness.

As they proceed to their first engagement in Monte Carlo, Gabor informs Adele that their relationship will be chaste: His personal code does not permit him to sleep with his assistants. Like a doctor, he must not compromise his skill and her safety. At this point, a physical relationship would affect his judgment. Nevertheless, they soon achieve an intimacy of another sort. As he explains to her, a knife-thrower cannot succeed unless his target inspires him. Adele is nothing if not inspiring. As she stands against the corkboard at which he hurls his knives, she gasps and sighs with almost erotic abandon as each one safely hits its mark just beyond her flesh. She comes through each performance unscathed, except for the odd nick that he tenderly bandages. Leconte’s conceit is so bald, it’s astonishing. He merely unmasks the sexual metaphor everyone senses in knife-throwing acts. This is courtship distilled to its essentials: step by step, feminine permission transfigures masculine desire, which is skillfully disciplined by respect and affection. Bv today’s standards, such traditionalism is positively daring.

The film’s velvety black-and-white photography is strikingly appropriate to the knife-throwing sequences. They are shot in tight, alternating close-ups of the couple’s faces. Paradis’s features are rendered in a hazy luminescence that brings out their soft, rounded youthfulness. Auteuil’s craggy face is split vertically like the half moon, deep shadow on one side and blinding light on tire other, emphasizing his hollowed eves, sagging cheeks, and beaked nose. Their allegorical roles are literally illuminated: Leconte is meditating on the seemingly irreconcilable poles of immature desire and adult restraint. Where she is haplessly headlong, he is honorably headstrong. Their relationship will be the fulcrum on which these elemental contradictions either balance or founder. For, as we discover, they are extremes in need of one another.

Unlike Adele, Gabor is never tempted to drift. His focused existentialism won’t allow it. Although he knows in his bones that life —this life at least—is a losing proposition, he’s determined to achieve at least a limited triumph over its manifold treacheries. Like Hemingway’s bullfighter, he places himself in the arena of hazard in order to master a portion of his fate. With his knife-throwing, he has staked out a philosophical position: To live honestly, he must expose himself to uncertainty, trusting his courage and skill to turn the balance of chance and choice in his favor, knowing all the while that disaster is never farther than a knife throw away. It takes Adele some time to realize it, but compared to her hit-and-run Lotharios, Gabor is far more erotic and infinitely more considerate.

In the film’s denouement, choices must be made. Will Gabor come to realize that his control, however admirable, is sterile without Adele’s sensual abandon? Will she realize that her spontaneity, however intoxicating, is aimless without his focus? Leconte has occasion to play Goodman’s exquisite lovers’ lament, “Goodbye,” more than once as Adele and Gabor struggle with their oddly conventional relationship. Will they choose their chance or drift away to an infinity of equally perplexing bridges?

Leconte’s wise and playful film gives the lie to those who prattle endlessly about the necessity of eradicating the “socially determined” differences between feminine and masculine sensibilities. With incomparable elegance and easy grace, he declares vive la difference.

Unlike Leconte’s film. Saving Grace, despite its punning title, displays precious little of this supernatural commodity.

Director Nigel Cole’s film tells the story of Grace Trevethyn (Brenda Blethyn), whose philandering husband has died, leaving her in poverty. Although he left her an ancestral country seat in Cornwall, it turns out he had the estate ruinously mortgaged in order to fund his various escapades. Now, the bank is closing in, and she cannot pay the loan.

When her young, pot-smoking groundskeeper Matthew (Craig Ferguson) enlists her renowned horticultural talents to save his ailing marijuana plants, the heretofore innocent, middle-aged Grace sees her chance. Soon, she’s harvesting a small fortune in pot. Although the local constable quickly catches on, he turns a blind eye, not having the heart to add to Grace’s troubles.

All of this is amusing, up to a point: Cannabis is not the threat some of its detractors would have us believe. The Cornish constable’s live-and-let-live policy is certainly preferable to cops running the streets, guns at the ready, in pursuit of ill advised but generally harmless tokers.

That said, it’s quite another matter to treat large-scale marketing in marijuana lightly, which is exactly what the film does by having Grace fall in with a dangerous drug dealer whom we’re supposed to see as a lovable rogue. This is as insulting as the phony ending that allows Grace to escape criminal contamination.

Then there’s the groundskeeper whose girlfriend is pregnant. Since they both use cannabis “recreationally,” you would think there might be some concern about the many birth defects that have been linked to the drug. But, no, this would interfere with the film’s feel-good hedonism.

The only grace in this film is the magnificent Cornish coastline. With scenery this beautiful, it seems a shame people would have to turn to dope to get high.

Steal This Movie! also comes under a cloud of cannabis. This may explain why it’s as insufferably self-absorbed as its subject, 60’s yippie Abbie Hoffman. How else can we explain director Robert Greenwald’s strange choice of Vincent D’Onofrio to play Hoffman? When he was young, Hoffman was a small, lean man who possessed the quicksilver mischievousness of a perpetually wired brat. D’Onofrio is large and slow of foot. Where Hoffman pranced, he lumbers.

This casting is just the first in an endless series of miscalculations in this would-be tribute to a would-be revolutionary. At one point, and without a scintilla of irony, Hoffman pays his wife Anita his idea of an endearment. “If I’d been born a woman, I woulda been Anita.” As Anita, Janeane Garofalo smiles beatifically at her eloquent beau, and you instantly understand why: What more could she hope for from this shameless narcissist than his declaration that he loves her as passionately as he does himself?

The movie is infected with the same solipsistic smugness. Greenwald, assuming we are all as infatuated with Hoffman as he is, merely skims over events in a series of frenetic montages of actual and simulated newsreels. There’s Abbie creating uproar at the 1968 Democratic Convention; here, he’s cutting up as a defendant in the Chicago Seven trial; now, he’s marching on the Pentagon; later, he’s usurping a civic association leader’s position in order to appoint himself chief crusader on the St. Lawrence River reclamation project. But none of these episodes is properly developed. Everything is referenced in shorthand code with a knowing nod, as if we’re all worshiping at the same shrine and can quote the liturgy in our sleep.

This is not surprising. Righteous ideologues generally assume that their concerns are on everyone else’s mind also. This explains why Hoffman took it for granted that the FBI had nothing better to do than keep him under perpetual surveillance. He couldn’t conceive of anyone more interesting or politically dangerous than himself At first, the film suggests that Hoffman was exaggerating his persecution; then, with a dramatic flourish, we’re told the FBI actually did have a file on him. We’re asked to believe that this was an inordinate breach of Hoffman’s civil liberties. But this was a man who spent his life encouraging others to break the law, screamed tirelessly about toppling “Amerika,” and fled drug dealing charges. Whether the FBI’s attention was excessive or not, I don’t know; but I strongly suspect Hoffman would have been disconsolate if the Bureau hadn’t taken an interest in him. In another time and country, he would have found himself buried in a dungeon or exiled to a gulag. This being “Amerika,” however, he spent a few nights behind bars for disturbing the peace and a couple of months for selling cocaine and jumping bail.

In covering Hoffman’s six years on the lam, under an assumed identity, Greenwald unintentionally reveals the man for what he was: Hoffman complains of missing his wife and son, but his overriding concern is that he’s no longer recognized as Abbie. At one point, he begins screaming hysterically, “I’m Abbie Hoffman, I’m Abbie Hoffman,” over and over.

Although played for pathos, this infantile tantrum of self-assertion is inadvertently the film’s most genuine moment. Like Joseph Conrad’s Mr. Kurtz, Hoffman was a man whose world began and ended with himself That’s why he was always right and why everyone who disagreed with him was wrong. He was the consummate idealist; he could make himself believe anything that flattered his own self-esteem. If, as many suppose, he committed suicide in 1989, we can see why; When he could no longer command front-page attention, there wasn’t much else to live for.