Nathan Silver has an eye for a great face — a beautiful one, marked and matured and made extraordinary by feeling — that you don’t typically see at the center of a movie. Actress Lindsay Burdge has one of those. It’s her fine-lined, progressively devastated visage, often held in close-up that’s both adoring and unforgiving, that carries us through the stressful emotional machinations of “Thirst Street,” Silver’s most excitingly stylized microbudget indie to date. Taking a leaf (or several, in enticing sherbet shades) from Fassbinder and the arch experimentalism of 1970s psychodrama, with a dusting of the same decade’s Eurotica, this compact but internally unruly tragicomedy centers on a grief-stricken young flight attendant driven to obsessive madness by an over-extended one-night stand in Paris — tracking her as intimately and relentlessly as she does her callous male quarry.
“Thirst Street” isn’t exactly kind to its protagonist, whose extreme self-debasement for the sake of an unworthy man follows in the tradition of vintage melodrama — until a third-act kicker takes proceedings into potential revenge territory, the feminist implications of which not all viewers are likely to agree on. Even at its cruelest, however, the guiding perspective never strays from its heroine, Gina, and her desires, however misplaced; her plunging loneliness is continuously felt, even in the pic’s busiest, most fluorescent interludes. If we occasionally sense a disconnect between the scraped-raw characterization of Gina herself and the elaborately heightened formal approach of Silver and his ace cinematographer Sean Price Williams — their visual register ranging from gauzy softcore to iridescent Old Hollywood nostalgia — that itself seems reflective of her own dissociated state. Anjelica Huston’s arch, analytical narration, meanwhile, provides a chilly bridge throughout between inner and outer lives.
A pre-title sequence establishing the origin of Gina’s heartache unfolds with compelling economy, conveying the broken arc of a single ill-fated romance in mere minutes, with enough bejeweled human detail to stand as a short film on its own. In it, the New York State singleton’s globe-hopping but humdrum life of overlooked professional servility is illuminated when she meets sensitive academic Paul (Damien Bonnard), but their swift, blissful union cannot last: With her constant, job-dictated absences playing on his psychological frailties, Paul commits suicide. Having love withdrawn as suddenly as it was offered sends Gina into a tailspin. Only a layover in Paris, encouraged by an older colleague (Silver’s mother and regular collaborator Cindy) and a dubious tarot reader, does she muster the courage to talk to another man.
Unluckily for her, that man happens to be morosely mustachioed strip-joint bartender Jerome (Bonnard again, ominously enough), a serial player who sleeps with her once and forgets her name by dawn. No amount of stiff body language, monosyllabic grunts and subsequent text-ghosting on his part, however, can convince the unworldly Gina that he’s no keeper. Instead, hell-bent on regaining true romance, she quits her job, moves to Paris and rents an apartment across the road from her unresponsive lover, finally scoring a waitressing job at his seedy place of work.
This is behavior that many a commercial genre film — from romantic comedies to domestic thrillers — might depict from the man’s point of view as plainly psychotic, but “Thirst Street’s” script, co-written by the director and C. Mason Wells, is rather more even-handed. It’s not only Gina’s irrational impulses and wince-inducing inability to take a hint that are exposed, but the passive-aggressive ways in which Jerome continues to lead her on, and even to casually exploit her ill-considered devotion, all while rekindling relations with his bemused punk-singer ex Clemence (a superbly tart, thorny Esther Garrel). This impasse of the heart makes for acutely, intentionally painful viewing, as Gina’s attempts to regain even Jerome’s moderate interest extend to disquieting levels of self-abuse — a descent barely alleviated by an under-developed, erotically charged subplot concerning her friendship with female club worker Charlie (Lola Bessis).
It’s Burdge who brings flickering light and shade to this tough trawl through wallflower hell, as Gina’s sometimes overlapping processes of devotion, delusion, denial and final dawning play across her solemn but all-too-vulnerable face, often with little supplementary dialogue; it’s a remarkable performance that appears to draw equal inspiration from the minimalism of mumblecore and the most expressive anguish of a Hanna Schygulla.
She has a fine, tricky scene partner in Bonnard — as intriguingly abstruse here as in his breakout turn in the recent Alain Guiraudie puzzler “Staying Vertical” — though her closest collaborative ally might be Price Williams, whose typically inspired camerawork lights her suffering in expressionistic stabs of neon or stripped shades of gray, as required. The soundtrack shifts in tone nearly as restlessly as the image, switching from saccharine orchestral sweep to the cracked karaoke tremble of Gina’s wishfully on-the-nose rendition of “Time Is On My Side,” to the unexpectedly earthy Nashville truth-telling of Sandy Posey’s “Born a Woman”: “If you’re born a woman, you’re born to be hurt,” she croons, as we hope against slender hope for Gina to subvert that diktat.