Although it runs out of gas before its unlikely conclusion, Jean Becker’s “Elisa” is the kind of custom-built star vehicle that has been rarely seen on the showroom floor since the collapse of the studio system. Punchy meller, about a conniving young femme fatale out to wreak revenge on her absentee father, unequivocally establishes 20ish singer Vanessa Paradis as a budding screen goddess. With Gallic media coverage of Paradis running only a notch below the ink devoted to O.J. stateside, pic seems set for a healthy run at local wickets, to be followed by international arthouse traffic that could very well make Paradis a household name in a few more households.
Paradis, who made her screen debut in Jean-Claude Brisseau’s “White Wedding,” hasn’t been seen on the bigscreen since that 1989 pic, and Becker hasn’t directed since “One Deadly Summer” (1983), which was a tour-de-force showcase for Isabelle Adjani, also playing a bitchy sexpot bent on revenge.
Before the opening credits conclude, a pained young woman has apparently smothered her 3-year-old daughter with a pillow before setting fire to the apartment and shooting herself while an incongruously jaunty instrumental blares from a tape player — all on Christmas Eve, 1979. Song is the French radio staple “Elisa,” written in 1979 by the late singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg, with whom Paradis recorded an album and to whom the film is dedicated.
Elisa, in this case, is the dead mother’s name, and the daughter, Marie (Paradis), now six months shy of her 18th birthday, is a provocative young morsel who can fib her way in and out of any situation, whip up cruelly incisive psychological profiles of the adults around her and make men swoon with an innocent flutter of the lids over her wide-set eyes. If an outfit is too short, too clingy and too revealing, she’s sure to wear it.
With Solange (perky Clothilde Courau), her inseparable g.f. from the orphanage, and their younger black sidekick, Ahmed (equally perky Sekkou Sall), Marie spends her days shoplifting in Paris and improvising ingenious ways to separate marks from their money or self-esteem. These scenes — particularly the showstopper in which the trio crashes a formal wedding reception and Marie takes the bandstand mike to repeat all the incriminating remarks she’s overheard guests make about other guests — are funny, instructional and thesped with a convincing aura of inspired spontaneity.
Marie’s formative experiences with her crotchety grandparents, childhood accomplices, civil servants and a series of men appear in flashbacks that surge forth without warning. Puzzle pieces of her past yield a composite portrait of why she has a chip the size of Gibraltar on her creamy white shoulder.
Obsessed with tracking down the father she never met, Marie intimidates social workers and other key sources in a series of scenes that are consistently audacious and riveting.
Marie’s ruthless investigating leads her to a windswept fishing island where Lebovitch (Gerard Depardieu), who composed “Elisa,” is living a drunken and dissolute life. Marie has a gun but she also has a magnificent body — and has to decide which weapon to use against the man she believes prompted her mother’s death.
Depardieu may as well have “sensitive loser with gruff exterior” tattooed on his forehead, and heretofore lively pic begins to cater to a different, ill-defined agenda awash with soapsuds.
Paradis is sultry, sexy, beguiling and possessed of an appealingly girlish voice. However implausible the proceedings become, she convinces. But the movie veers into wobbly territory after an hour and a quarter when Maria locates Lebovitch, a transition from which pic never recovers.
Widescreen lensing is efficient, and far-ranging score meshes neatly with the action. Certain period details feel too contemporary or, conversely, too old-fashioned. But Paradis’ nuanced perf in a tailor-made role goes a long way toward compensating for pic’s flaws.