The mid-1980s were a time of stylistic excess, and even if Paris has never quite resembled the hyperrealist pastiche that Andrzej Zulawski constructed for L’Amour Braque, certainly the world on screen feels oddly familiar. The film, shot in 1984 and released a year later, is emblematic of French pop cinema of that era, when pulp entertainments suggested high-end fashion advertisements. Beautifully photographed in expressively vibrant hues by renowned cinematographer Jean François Robin, who leans into Zulawski’s style of having the camera pursue actors as they careen through streets, up winding staircases, and rush through hallways into common spaces that they routinely demolish hand over fist, L’Amour Braque is one of the best kinds of entertainment: unclassifiable.
The brashly ironic, intellectually provocative, and emotionally explosive Zulawski adapted the film from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s epic-sized, violent, and philosophically scattershot Christian parable The Idiot, and he appropriately opens it with a heist that’s staged with the fluidity of a musical number. The sequence moves in rhythmic lockstep with the nervous breathing and adrenaline-infused panic that grips four men with guns, dressed in jumpsuits and wearing Disney character masks as they bash their way into an opulent bank. The handful of robberies and break-ins throughout L’Amour Braque are punctuated by a purple haze of bombs going off, flamethrower carnage, and cackling verbal nonsense that’s a crazy mix of pidgin French, slang, poetry, pop-cultural references, and all sorts of allusions—some literary, some historic, some seemingly private jokes meant to completely confound the viewer.
The film was co-written by Zulawski and Étienne Roda-Gil, an audacious and much revered experimental songwriter, and the resulting text seems to have been written within a hot house of idealism where the spirit of radical, love-crazy joy and belief that we’re all damned in the end reign supreme. Zulawski and Roda-Gil are an inspired team, both radical spirits willing to push for something beyond our narrow definitions of naturalism, and the sheer reach of the script is such that it feels as if its truly plumbing the depths of the human heart.
The lead bank robber, Micky (Tchéky Karyo), is spending all his newfound cash on purchasing Marie (Sophie Marceau), the girl he loves. She’s barely legal, but with eyes that reflect a much richer history of experience. With petulant lips and a Lulu wig, dresses that seem appropriate to a ’20s flapper, and a cunning mix of streetwise sexual power and closely kept vulnerability, she’s the ultimate dream girl for an exuberant, “bite your teeth into the ass of life” guy like Micky. But the film isn’t merely about them and Micky’s efforts to steal her away from the vicious gang of pimps, gangsters, and corrupt theater managers who own her.
Enter Léon (Francis Huster), a holy fool of sorts from Budapest who Micky encounters on a train and immediately befriends. Holding to the belief that a man who has both a woman and a true friend by his side is immune to all the laws and injustices of mankind, Micky puts Léon and Marie together, thinking the idiot savant will protect the dream girl, but the audience is clued in to how complicated this triangle will become right from the searing moment when Léon first lays eyes on her, when time seems to stop in a quintessentially vivacious Zulawski close-up and the first words out of his mouth are: “You’re beautiful.”
The most pure moments of love in L’Amour Braque, and the most painful betrayals, are found in the scenes between Léon and Marie, and sometimes it’s difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. During a tender love scene between them, Léon gasps, “I’m bleeding!” To which Marie says, “No, you’re coming.” And though much of the film concentrates on Léon exacting horrific revenge on his enemies, the actual tragic element of the story, and the greater eruption of violence, is in the inevitable doom that must result from the love triangle of Léon, Micky, and Marie: the thief who will kill for love, the innocent who cannot tell a lie, and the beautiful woman who exists in the voluptuous gray zone between them.
L’Amour Braque’s narrative is straightforward but obscured—or illuminated, depending on how you feel about the content—by the poetry of the language. While Zulawski didn’t make this film as some kind of game for smart people to play “guess the reference” (you feel his cinema more in your entire body, really), one has to be adventurous and willing to ride the wave of satire, allusion, loquacity, and the stitched-togetherness of it all, as well as the ultraviolence. It’s a thick, taste-bud-blasting stew of high culture and pulp convention, two qualities that don’t often go together but truly are what we get from someone like Dostoyevsky.
Remember, Dostoyevsky doesn’t spend 500 pages philosophizing in Crime and Punishment before Raskolnikov’s murders take place; there’s a brutal shock less than 100 pages into the book, followed by a second so unfair and unexpected that it’s a slap in the face, followed by a long, intimate grappling with the immensity of Raskolnikov’s guilt. L’Amour Braque is like that: an action picture for those curious to discuss what morality is, what love and trust and goodness are all about, and how difficult they are to realize in a crazy and unpredictable nightmare world. In the end, there’s no telling if you’ll be on its wavelength or not, but it’s very much worth diving into its maelstrom of love and madness in order to find out.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.