“Fresh Bait” captures the twisted symbiosis whereby three reasonably nice and normal French kids become a clumsy death squad. Bertrand Tavernier’s conscientious look at moral bankruptcy, as demonstrated by murders as chillingly excessive as they are pointless, does a sober, fairly suspenseful job of deglamourizing violence. Although subject is familiar and pic’s underlying theme is more powerful than its execution,thesps are good, and general interest in name-brand helmer could put this one across in international arthouses. Berlin fest bow will be followed by French release March 8.
“Fresh Bait” was to have been the realistic crime follow-up to “L.627,” but helmer was obliged to take over the reins on “D’Artagnan’s Daughter” first. Co-scripters Tavernier and Colo Tavernier O’Hagan have updated a true story that stunned the nation in 1984, and their well-delineated point — that lethal gestures out of all proportion with material gain can be the work of ordinary kids from ordinary families — is both shocking and banal.
Barely 18, fresh-faced and shapely Nathalie (Marie Gillain) works in a Paris clothing boutique and lives in a small apartment with her handsome, marginally older boyfriend, Eric (Olivier Sitruk), and Eric’s none-too-bright, emotionally co-dependent buddy, Bruno (Bruno Putzulu). While Nat works, the guys watch American gangster and adventure pix on TV, hang out in cafes and talk tough. They conclude that money is the ultimate arbiter of success, so they’ll have to get lots of it.
Frequenting pricey nightspots in search of a break into showbiz, Nathalie methodically collects the business cards of professional men while Eric formulates a grandiose plan with more holes than a colander: Nathalie — the bait — is to get herself invited to the victim’s home, presumably for sex, only to have Eric and Bruno burst in and empty the overflowing safe that they imagine all lawyers and merchants must have. Kids believe that a handful of such heists will yield the seed money they need to open a pie-in-the-sky chain of ready-to-wear boutiques in the U.S.
Their initial efforts run into one snafu after another — which makes a refreshing, often comic, change from the usual effortless SWAT team-style movie break-ins — until Eric orders Bruno to pistol whip and bludgeon to death a financially disappointing victim.
This key moment in Eric’s reasoning, as presented onscreen, doesn’t completely convince. Since all subsequent developments flow from this critical event, cumulative authenticity is somewhat undercut.
Violence takes place in a tense, well-defined offscreen space that echoes Nathalie’s denial of what the boy she loves and his sidekick are really up to.
What is more chilling than the fatal deeds themselves is that it never occurs to the trio that thieving and murdering might be perceived as an objectionable way to raise capital or that they might get caught. Although their families appear adequate and even caring, the kids’ moral universe seems to have been shaped mostly by videocassettes of American movies. (While selecting vidpix, one of the gang asks, “Should I get this tape?,” eliciting the reply, “No, it’s French — it sucks.”) Tightly knit ensemble cast is good, particularly Putzulu as the dim-bulb sponger who takes things literally. Gillain’s Nathalie has the closest thing to a functioning moral compass, yet still experiences only fleeting remorse.
Richard Berry adds touching suspense as a smooth operator who thinks on his feet when cornered and reveals that the appearance of wealth does not always translate into ready cash.
Extensive use of nocturnal, roving hand-held camera renders the proceedings up-close, fluid and intimate. Dance music is rhythmic, and other incidental music is fine.
To its credit, pic shows just how wide the gap can be between concept and reality, theory and execution when one’s head is full of movies, TV gameshows and magazine articles instead of more enduring values.