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  Elisa Lethal Lolita
Year: 1995
Director: Jean Becker
Stars: Vanessa Paradis, Gérard Depardieu, Clotilde Courau, Sekkou Sall, Florence Thomasin, Michel Bouquet, Philippe Léotard, Catherine Rouvel, Melvil Poupaud, Olivier Saladin, José Garcia
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 3 votes)
Review: On Christmas Eve, a distraught Elisa Desmolin (Florence Thomasin) lovingly tucks her three year old daughter into bed, then suddenly smothers her with a pillow. A gramophone plays the ragtime tune her husband wrote, a song that bears Elisa’s name. She puts a gun in her mouth and pulls the trigger. But her child survives and fifteen years later, bombshell Marie (Vanessa Paradis) is living a life of teen kicks and petty crime alongside her young friends Solange (Clotilde Courau) and Ahmed (Sekkou Sall). Marie has a knack for nifty con tricks and disarming middle-aged lechers with her vivacious wit, but remains haunted by childhood tragedy. Discovering her father Jacques (Gérard Depardieu) - an alleged pimp and ex-jailbird - is still alive, Marie heads for his coastal home with a ruthless plan, to seduce and kill him.

Suggestions of incest and Lolita-style sexual antics earned Elisa a degree of notoriety in its native France. It was a surprise change of pace for social realist filmmaker Jean Becker, but while some critics scorned this as a shallow vehicle for its Franco-pop star, the film is often affecting, full of lively incident and Vanessa Paradis pouts and smoulders like a young Brigitte Bardot. This is the kind of film that works best in a French context, where a potentially melodramatic plot is rendered with wit, heart and panache. Let’s get one thing out of the way first. Paradis looks fantastic, whether in sexy outfits or her spectacular nude scene on the beach.

As an actress, she is most compelling as a capricious, yet fiercely moral and insightful minx, yet flounders slightly amidst the film’s latter, more heavily dramatic half. There are some sparkling scenes like when Marie and friends sneak into a posh wedding and she humiliates a room full of bourgeois bullies. Or when Marie targets the aging businessman who once slept with her mother, a tragicomic liaison that turns unsettling as she leaves him sobbing, naked and humiliated. Becker enables us to share the youngsters’ triumph with the con tricks they pull, the “have-nots” socking it to the “haves”, without being mean-spirited and sketches their fast-living friendship.

Clotilde Courau is even stronger than Paradis, as the flirty yet vulnerable Solange, prone to predatory men, while Sekkou Sall is the pre-teen Romeo awestruck by this blonde bombshell (“You’re a dial-a-goddess, a walk on the beach, a breath of fresh air!”). Their relationship concludes with a lovely scene where Marie bids each of her friends farewell with a deeply personal gift. Her video message to Solange is quite touching and she takes Ahmed’s virginity in a scene that is tender, not tawdry.

Very much a film of two halves, with different narrative styles, the neon-lit street-kid antics give way to autumnal colours and more reflective drama, no less compelling. While the daughter seduces father plotline recalls Obsession (1976), this is a less chilly, more emotionally engaged affair. Depardieu is on fine form and sparks well off Paradis. Prone to drunken, misogynistic rants, Jacques isn’t the reprobate he appears to be and resists Marie’s mind games. A scene where he gently wipes the makeup off her face (“See? An artist doesn’t need paint to make something beautiful. He merely removes what is superfluous”) poetically illustrates how he disarms Marie with genuine love. More than a decade on, Elisa holds up pretty well and the future Mrs. Johnny Depp makes goofing off on a bicycle the sexiest thing ever.

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Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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