Gallic novelist Vincent Ravalec makes a striking debut with his first directing effort, “Melody for a Hustler,” an offbeat but captivating meditation on the evils of the market-driven modern world. The portrait of a small-time crook who transforms himself into a yuppie chef d’entreprise is wryly humorous, moves along at a good clip and is filled with all kinds of eye-catching visual flourishes. Pic will likely make some music in theaters on its home turf and draw festival interest, but will have more trouble coming up with a memorable box office tune internationally.
Gaston (Yvan Attal) is a local hood with big ambitions. He has hooked up with 16-year-old Marie-Pierre (Virginie Lanoue), who he picked up hitchhiking, and he pulls her into his web by pretending to be a millionaire businessman. He is actually living in a squalid apartment and making cash by trading in stolen goods.
He soon graduates to bigger heists, including a memorable theft of a luxury car that involves disarming the car alarm with a vibrator. His real goal is to make his illegal activities seem more above-board, and, in a series of funny scenes, he and his g.f. do their best to act like MBA-toting managers.
Success comes quickly for Gaston and his company, Extramill, and they’re soon installed in swank offices and living in a comfortable upper-middle-class neighborhood. This is where Ravalec grabs the story by the neck and pushes it forcefully into a much wilder direction, as Gaston gradually descends into a state of paranoia.
Writer-helmer is clearly trying to skewer the business culture of the day, but then he suddenly adds a sexual subtext that makes for a much more original story. Gaston’s world comes tumbling down by the end in a nightmarish mix of police investigations, partner-swapping kinky sex and explosive violence.
Novelists making the move from the typewriter to the director’s chair often end up delivering unsatisfying pics, but Ravalec combines his literary bent with a keen visual sense that ensures “Melody for a Hustler” is anything but bookish. Ravalec and cameraman Philippe Lesourd use a number of vintage New Wave-type devices to keep things interesting, including freeze frames, split screens and in-your-face hand-held camerawork.
The focus throughout is on Gaston, and Attal comes through with a riveting perf that is reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s most intense work. Attal manages to convey both the charm and the psychosis of the protagonist. Newcomer Lanoue does a good job as the sexy ingenue. Other supporting thesps are generally strong, most notably Yann Collette as Gaston’s unhinged, one-eyed sideman Gilles.
Robert Miny’s score underlines schizoid mood of piece with an intriguing melange of torch ballads and bouncy Gallic swing tunes.