Audacious Adolescents

With the hyper-naturalism of Kids still very much in mind, newcomer Manuel Pradal transplants the horrors of feral youth to the sun-pocked post-card vistas of the French Riviera. Specifically, he's set us amid the ready-made mythology of the Bay of Angels surrounding Nice -- a blend of sky and sand that F. Scott Fitzgerald once portrayed as "the pink and cream of old fortifications, the purple alp that bounded Italy" in the opening of Tender Is the Night.

As the prologue of Marie Baie des Anges informs us, two large, sharklike fins of rock are said to guard the bay and its anges de mer ("angels of the sea" -- a species of shark indigenous to local waters) against plunderers; the bay is guarded so successfully, it turns out, that these angels were not only allowed to thrive, but were long ago driven shoreward by their perpetual taste for blood. And with an offshore execution 20 seconds into the opening credits, we can see why. By the time the metaphor is revived by the tour guide's spiel late in the proceedings, the young lovers we've been tracking are all but wrapped in scarlet billows, their storybook romance oozing life.

Vahina Giocante headlines a cast of virtual unknowns as the sultry Marie, a pouting Lolita precociously exploring the limits of her newfound seductiveness, and all of 13 when shooting commenced. Curved like a question mark on the couch in a hotel suite, bored by the lobster and champagne she extorts from American sailors, Marie can't seem to live fast enough. She flirts with catastrophe at every turn, narrowly avoids being raped, dances in a circle of drunken sailors until she's whipped them into an erotic frenzy. "Let's start a fire," she says at one point, on the lip of sexual abandon, suffused with the sweet burn of youth.

Soon enough she meets Orso (Frederic Malgras), one of a pack of wild boys that endlessly terrorizes the town. Orso exhibits the same blunt features, dead eyes and damaged indifference as similar predators in Welcome to the Dollhouse and Kids -- or, for that matter, your garden-variety great white. Orso rambunctiously lurches from one altercation to the next, as likely a target or fall guy as he is a burgeoning criminal, and not really caring much either way. Marie recognizes in his impulsive violence the same headlong rush toward something he would be hard-pressed to articulate, and soon enough they have lashed their destinies together.

But this being a French film, the grim reality is undercut at every turn by an unfettered romanticism and dizzy interpolation of movie culture. Everything is lush and bursting with portent -- the drunken carnival rides and illicit motorcycle petting and petty street crimes are all freewheeling simulacra of adolescent release. Meanwhile, the American sailors who adopt Marie as a sexual mascot are tap dancing out of some Vincente Minnelli travelogue one minute and threatening statutory rape the next. Marie and Orso eventually leave the episodic squalor of their peers and find an exquisite lovers' hideaway out on one of the islands, reminiscent of the magical world out of time from the middle of Badlands, another first film drunk on all the films that came before it. This respite, of course, only delays the inevitable.

To his credit, Pradal is the first stylist bubbling with enthusiasm in a very long time to want to remake Breathless for its exuberance and audacity rather than for its nicotine noir. Everything here seems dreamlike and preordained. The strands of imminent violence are continually threaded through a larger social context, with the mandatory inclusion of soccer riots, gang rapes in public lavatories and the rife symbology of the Grand Prix bearing down on them -- but these all seem chosen more for their specific design elements rather than any formal coherence. Also, there's some fast-and-loose tinkering with structure, as well as some metaphysical mumbo jumbo at the end, with a security camera doubling for a revolver, that not even Blow-Up would have ventured.

Still, the casual improvisation and malleable, unformed nature of the talent give it a raw emotion that feels less generic than archetypal. Any glaring omissions of youth are more than made up for by the surfeit of style, the unbridled enthusiasm for the medium and the impatient pacing of adolescence itself.

Marie Baie des Anges.
Rated R.
Directed by Manuel Pradal. With Vahina Giocante and Frederic Malgras.


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