His name is Abel, and he’s played by Tahar Rahim (“A Prophet”), exuding twinkling, dirty, stubbled charisma. He’s an incorrigible gambler and a con man on first-name terms with the wrong kind of people — vicious debt collectors and bouncers in underground gambling dens. He is bad news. But for Ella (Stacy Martin) the hardworking, capable and perhaps slightly uptight manager of her father’s popular local bistro, he’s the best kind of bad news — the kind that makes you sadder, but also smarter, savvier and, frankly, sexier. French director Marie Monge’s native country may have coined the term “film noir,” and there may be more than a dash of Audiard to her debut, but “Treat Me Like Fire” is best considered in the context of the lowlife-ridden cinema of 1970s Hollywood, in which the arc of every star-crossed relationship tends inevitably toward betrayal. Less pretentiously titled as simply “Joueurs” (“Players”) in French, Monge’s deliciously seedy first film is light on originality but heavy on atmospherics: a sleazy, sultry, saxophone-blare echoing down a Parisian metro tunnel at night.
Abel engineers a meet-cute with Ella when he walks into her restaurant on the pretext of wanting a job. But he leaves later that night with the takings from the till, for which Ella pursues him all the way to a members-only gambling club, where he somehow finagles her into betting the money, rather than claiming it. She wins, of course, and with her pockets fat with cash — and a sizzle of electricity across every shared glance with Abel — she’s hooked on the game and on the man. How could you not be? Soon she’s missing shifts at the restaurant before ditching her family ties altogether (with a not wholly credible viciousness, it should be noted), and letting Abel move in with her.
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But Abel’s giddy, infectious roguishness, as with many compulsives, is only the manic upswing of a see-sawing psyche. His shy, mechanic cousin Nacim (an endearingly hangdog Karim Leklou) who abets Abel’s other vice — driving in a demolition derby — is also aware of the lows. Soon the honeymoon period for this amour fou careens into mistrust and deception, leaving all the amour on Ella’s side, and all the fou with Abel.
On one level, “Treat Me Like Fire” can feel overfamiliar. Even its most impressive technical aspects, such as Paul Guilhaume’s low-key lurid photography, shot through with roulette-wheel reds, greens and golds, and Nicolas Becker’s brooding, jangly, propulsive score are simply very polished versions of exactly what we might expect. But the film is most enjoyable if considered as a slight subversion on film noir archetypes: Here it is Rahim’s Abel who occupies the “femme fatale” role — the one who lures our straitlaced hero away from the path of righteousness and into the city’s shadowy underbelly. Martin’s Ella, meanwhile, is the female version of the patsy who finally gets wise to the fact that the dude just ain’t no good; it is genuinely refreshing to watch, for once, the woman trying to work the man out, to have him be the inexplicable, mercurial “other” whose motivations are shrouded in shadow, danger and mystery.
On the page (the hardboiled screenplay was co-written by Monge, Julien Guetta and Romain Compingt) that conceit results in less dimension to the Abel character, and a little more objectification — though it’s rarely physical in his case. Monge’s use of Martin’s nudity as an empowering decision her character makes is also a knottily interesting choice. However, Rahim seems to relish the role of flame to Ella’s moth, and though often unkempt and not a little schlubby, his allure is palpable, and his chemistry with his co-star genuinely crackles.
The relationship between Abel and Ella plays out like a game of baccarat, in which each new development is an opportunity to go double or quits. But by the time Abel reveals his twisted philosophy on gambling and life, by which his addiction arises not from the possibility of winning but from the discovery that “losing is your drug; the more you lose, the freer you become,” it’s clear that the story can end only one way. That final coup de grace is, again, par for the course for a genre that deals in the murkier side of human nature but ultimately tends toward hard-earned moralism. And yet Monge has carved out a little space in the deterministic film noir genre for something that elegantly and persuasively turns its accepted wisdom about the relationship between the sexes on its head. “Treat Me Like Fire” is an engrossing and compelling tale about the dice-roll of female transformation, as well as a sexy little torch song for Paris by night, and for the men who make us into the women we are.