Gallic newcomer Karim Dridi checks in with an arresting first feature in “Pigalle.” As it cruises strip joints, peep shows, sex shops, drug dens and prostitution beats — in the company of pimps, pushers, junkies, whores, transvestites and murderers — this bruising but unexpectedly redemptive tract perhaps piles on one or two tragedies too many. But it remains a punchy, smartly executed nocturnal narco-trip, which should bump and grind its way into festival beds before turning limited arthouse tricks.
Opening seg loosely weaves its way among a series of characters connected by ties that are only gradually clarified. At the center is pickpocket Fifi (Francis Renaud), romantically involved with both transvestite hooker Divine (Blanca Li) and Vera (Vera Briole), a peep-show dancer resisting the push to become a prostitute. Vera’s live-in career counselor, a small-time dealer known as Jesus le Gitan (Patrick Chauvel), rounds out the picture.
Having ushered in his main characters, writer/director Dridi then proceeds to rub them out as hostility steps up between the quarter’s shady operators. First to go is Divine. Sent by a lewd dwarf and his corpulent cohort to entertain the sadistic Malfait (Philippe Ambrosini), she dies in the gutter after a particularly gruesome session. Next up is le Gitan, whose severed head gets dumped in Vera’s bed.
But with the exception of one or two peripheral figures who teeter on the edge of grotesquerie, all characters are treated with dignity. Pushed by Divine’s death into a desperate course of action, Fifi is especially well drawn, and deftly played with a kind of sullen indifference by Renaud. Rest of the mainly non-pro cast is also on-target, shunning histrionic fireworks despite the opportunities provided.
Though some of the film’s many narrative twists are less than crystal-clear, Dridi keeps a tight grip on the material and sustains energy at virtually peak level throughout. Scenes are cut fast and lean by ace editor Lise Beaulieu (“Savage Nights”), with a fragmented quality that ditches preamble to go straight to the core.
Brit lensman John Mathieson’s work ably serves the film’s mix of narrative and docu styles, scanning the various dives and sticking close to the characters , given a harsh glow by the artificial light of nighttime Pigalle. When daylight is seen for the first time, in the pic’s unforced, upbeat ending, it almost comes as a shock. Blowup from Super-16mm creates a serviceably scruffy, edgy look that befits the filmmaker’s aims.