The short-story composite is among the most athletic feats of literary adaptation. In the best of them, like Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” a sense of temporal and cosmic connection is forged between scattered narratives bound only by an authorial voice; once viewed, it should be hard to imagine the strands unbraided. Drawn from an entire collection by American author Richard Bausch, relocated to the coastal city of Nice, Gilles Bourdos’s wriggly, mutable “Endangered Species” doesn’t quite pull off the trick, but it’s charged and vibrant all the same. Variously reflecting on the turbulent power dynamics between parents and adult children, its unequally weighted story threads range from gut-wrenching to glib, never fully woven into the same world. Making up for the film’s structural wobbles, however, is its gorgeous, agile visual language: Thanks to cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bing’s indelible image-making, the material gains a tactility distinct from what the written word can achieve.
On the strength of its rich sensory pleasures, U.S. literary roots and a strong ensemble of familiar French stalwarts and notable up-and-comers, “Endangered Species” should score some international distribution after its domestic release on September 27; it’s unlikely, however, to travel as far or as lucratively as Bourdos and Lee’s previous collaboration, the suitably incandescent, Oscar-submitted artist biopic “Renoir.” Putting Bourdos back on the contemporary, psychologically fraught turf of earlier films “Afterwards” and the Ruth Rendell adaptation “A Sight for Sore Eyes,” this is, tonally and thematically, his most off-kilter work to date: None of its mini-narratives are thrillers per se, but the uncertain way they bump into each other lends the film a persistent, humming anxiety.
Adapting the stories (all drawn from the 2003 collection “The Stories of Richard Bausch”) with his regular writing partner Michel Spinosa, Bourdos isn’t at great pains to disguise the screenplay’s divided origins. The film begins with two extended, seemingly disparate set pieces that could practically be self-standing short films. A dazzling introductory aerial shot — a cinematic endorphin rush that the film never tops — introduces us to young, beautiful, reckless newlyweds Josephine (Alice Isaaz) and Tomas (Vincent Rottiers), speeding and hooting down the motorway in their “just married” pickup, trailed by billowing clouds of carmine-colored smoke. Once in their hotel honeymoon suite, however, Tomas lurches from pillow talk to protracted mind games that presage a toxic turn in their marriage.
Next, Bourdos cuts to another intense, wholly unconnected conversation — this one conducted over the phone — between middle-aged Vincent (Eric Elmosnino) and his adult daughter Melanie (Alice de Lencquesaing). She’s pregnant by a man of whom Vincent doesn’t approve, and the lengthy dialogue implicitly spills so many salient details of their family history that it’s flummoxing when the film barely returns to their story, instead making Josephine and Tomas’s increasingly abusive relationship the film’s narrative locus.
After those two slow-burning scenes at the outset, the film switches to a more conventionally restless ensemble structure, alternating appointments with its core characters: Josephine and Tomas; her despairing parents (Grégory Gadebois and Suzanne Clément), whose own marital problems are exacerbated by knowledge of their daughter’s predicament; and, in the most outlying of the film’s strands, Anthony (Damien Chapelle), a tender-hearted, lovelorn young man struggling with the fallout of his parents’ wildly acrimonious breakup, followed by the confinement of his mother (Brigitte Catillon) to a psychiatric ward. All are tonally contrasting variations on a substantial theme: the growing powerlessness of parents to correct their children’s grown-up mistakes, and vice versa.
The more “Endangered Species” works to contrive literal connections — a fender-bender, a neighborly dispute — between these lost souls, the less credible it becomes, while the transitions can be disorienting: Anthony’s story plays in a far more whimsical register than Josephine’s harrowing plight, though both are performed with the same level of conviction. As a terrified victim of domestic violence who just can’t bring herself to ask for help, the highly promising Isaaz (recently seen in “Elle”) has the heftiest, most lacerating emoting to do here, though she first among equals in the cast; Gadebois, as a handcuffed parent resorting to panicked measures to protect his daughter, and Catillon, as a woman at once liberated and frustrated by her own mental breakdown, work wonders with characters written in shorthand.
Still, it’s Lee’s electric lensing that might be the star of the entire enterprise, awash with color and sweeping motion that democratically finds beauty in Nice’s highways and underexposed working-class residences, not just its Riviera money-shot locales. Working against the current trend for dusky, underlit social realism, Lee shoots even the film’s most downbeat sequences in dominant tones of citrus and fierce vermilion: No life in this tangle of human error is too insignificant to be blazingly illuminated.