To keep it indie 100 for a minute and hopefully not sound too obscure, if indie filmmaker Alex Ross Perry was to Roman Polanski what his paranoiac feature “Queen Of Earth” was to Polanski’s “The Tenant,” then director Nathan Silver is to Rainer Werner Fassbinder what “Thirst Street” is to the German New Wave director’s “Lola.” Plus, well, throw in a little additional devilish Polanski for good measure, too.
Don’t be confused. This is all to say director Nathan Silver’s latest feature, the Euro-arty-influenced “Thirst Street,” a wry and disturbed look at lust and longing, is a terrific, vintage homage, and a deliciously arch little treat (and made by Washington Square Films, the same company that produced “Queen Of Earth”). Starring the exceptional and fetching Lindsay Burdge (“A Teacher”), who walks a thin line of heightened melodrama, sly comedy and sincere emotional distress, the actress carries the brittle movie on her back, but never falters while sticking the landing of its tricky tenors.
In the vein of psychosexual thrillers of the ’80s or ’90s, with a ’70s throwback twist, Silver’s reading is more psychosexual comedy, as “Thirst Street” is slippery and mischievous in its depiction of anxiety and obsession — an easy cliff to fall off if you’re going to paint your heroine as a shrill nut job. Thankfully, “Thirst Street” is too smart and artful for that.
Burdge stars as Gina, a emotionally despondent flight attendant reeling from the loss of her fiancé who, in a lonely, paranoid and jealous fit at her long stretch of absences away from home, suddenly committed suicide. Sweet but emotionally off-center from the tragedy, Gina sticks close to her flight attendant gal pals as they hit Paris for a brief overlay. Wallflowering through an evening of drinks, her friends bribe a tarot-card reader to bring her good fortune. The fortuitous moment changes her mood and eventually lands her in the arms of Jérôme (Damien Bonnard), a charming and sophisticated French louche (who doesn’t look dissimilar to Gina’s ex). A one-night stand ensues and really, that should be it, but a magical connection is made, at least for Gina, which sends her on a possessed mission to find Jérôme and essentially insinuate herself into his life. Quickly unhinged, Gina falls head over heels, over heels and over heels. It’s a glorious splatter, a warped tour through 1970s, European-flavored psychodramas, again, many of which Polanski was the grandmaster of. Throw in a soupçon of feathery fantasy, a DePalma diopter shot or two and sweaty Serge Gainsbourg lecherousness, and the recipe is complete.
Narrated with delectable dry and deadpan wit by Anjelica Huston (an awesome get whose value to the tone cannot be understated), her purposefully emotionless, hilarious delivery is your first clue as to the askew nature of the movie. Esther Garrel co-stars as Clémence, an ex-girlfriend who becomes increasingly annoyed with Gina’s unwanted and ubiquitous presence.
Shot by venerable indie DP Sean Price Williams (“Heaven Knows What,” “Listen Up Philip,” “Queen Of Earth”), the cinematographer must have had a blast imitating Fassbinder’s Douglas Sirk-inspired look from “Lola” (DP Xaver Schwarzenberger) and its dreamy gaze and saturated colors. Williams is just one of the many contributors here that elevate already rich material. Visually, “Thirst Street” is enchanting, expressing with bold feeling all of Gina’s strange obsessions. Composer Paul Grimstad’s gauzy and atmospheric soundtrack only bolsters the fraught and theatrical mood.
If there are complications to be found in “Thirst Street,” it’s that Gina’s foundational problems are loosely drawn and she becomes a psycho rather tout suite. The film also risks alienating the viewer by not communicating enough empathy for Gina and her preoccupied passions. But as aloof as “Thirst Street” is, it’s comedic and textured enough to convey both a subtle sympathy and a roguish wink. As much as it seems “Thirst Street” is laughing at its protagonist superficially — she is put through some humiliating paces — Silver’s movie is actually living inside her dream, trying to break through the feverishness and erase her deep-seated anguish. “Thirst Street”’s playfulness is dangerous, the embarrassing mishaps that befall Gina become a little brutal in a cruel Lars Von Trier-esque manner. But it’s the movie’s perverse commitment to its cunning tone that makes for an impressive and delirious experience. If there’s a movie that can revel in releasing a character from her emotional paralysis while throwing her too far in the opposite direction without totally disaffecting the audience, “Thirst Street” is it.
Much of it is navigated by the superb, mannered and very game performance by Burdge, a character that is damaged and arguably insane, but never invites pity. Burdge’s turn is illuminating, taking what could be a stock stalker character and imbuing her with a sense of true need on top of her pulsing anxiety. It’s a complicated balance of nervousness, knowing coyness, and a low-level hum of despair.
Delightfully twisted, “Thirst Street” takes the ideas of desire, romantic longing and desperation — desperation as the world’s worst cologne — and bathes it in a sheen of frosty colors, genuine vulnerability and sardonic unkindness. If you didn’t know better, you might think “Thirst Street” was mocking the idea of infatuation, and maybe it is a little, but it’s the homagistic and earnest sensibilities of Sirk and Fassbinder — magnificent and florid obsessions — that are still the movie’s sincere and guiding principle. Sure, in many ways, “Thirst Street” wants to have it both ways, acting plucky and impish, while trying to humanize its character’s pain. It’s a delicate, precarious beam to balance on and it won’t fall on the right side for all audiences, but “Thirst Street” is just too wickedly crafty to not feel ardent affection for. [B+/A-]