“The Passengers” follows the professional and love lives of a cross section of individuals who ride the tramway serving the northern suburbs of Paris. With humor, incongruity and healthy anger as his guides, iconoclastic romantic Jean-Claude Guiguet uses his wildly uneven but admirable pic as a soapbox for his outrage on topics from AIDS to the dehumanizing effects of capitalism and industrialization. Fest auds will probably find helmer to be right on track, but general public is more likely to figure he’s run off the rails.
An oddball endeavor in which characters are given to addressing the camera, lecturing each other or reciting vivid chunks of literature when they’re not contemplating sex or cuddling after sex or spelling out the myriad ways people can have sex, pic fearlessly treats 35mm celluloid as a deeply personal mode of expression that can be lyrical or clunky or both, as long as it has a strong point of view. Guiguet certainly has that in spades.
As the narrator, authoritative vet Veronique Silver speaks directly to the camera, providing just enough info on her fellow passengers to follow their adventures once they alight. Some vignettes are more compelling than others, but highlights include Bruno Putzulu as a math prof who gives a tentative young acolyte (Stephane Rideau) a riveting statistical interpretation of the spread of AIDS, and Fabienne Babe as a nurse who takes up with a gentle security guard (Philippe Garziano) only to immediately start gauging what she’ll do when their relationship withers.
On board the tram, Jean-Christophe Bouvet delivers a show-stopping monologue awash in stern pronouncements on virility, bisexuality and the virtues of masturbation. At a public pool, the nurse’s friend (Gwenaelle Simon) lets loose with a dazzling monologue about her dream life as a perfect rural homemaker vs. her current mundane setup.
Cinephiles will hotly debate a sequence in which, while cycling along the canal where Jean Vigo shot “L’Atalante,” the math prof dares point out (without naming the film outright) that when it comes to truthfully defining the essence of a moment in French social attitudes, the late Cyril Collard’s “Savage Nights” (1992), his universally lauded, Cesar-winning ode to unbridled and unprotected sex, is morally bankrupt compared with Jean Eustache’s “The Mother and the Whore” made 20 years earlier.
Though freewheeling in content, the vignette-strewn pic is precise in performances, lighting, lensing and editing. Helmer isn’t shy about employing majestic classical music or tossing in cutaways from urban blight to majestic natural vistas. Pic really boils down to “Why has man worn down the planet’s immune system, and why are people so stupid and self-limiting when the world has so much to offer between birth and death?” It’s a tall order and a huge topic, but Guiguet successfully chews most of what he bites off.