Nathan Silver tackles melodrama in Thirst Street, fusing its emotional bigness with his unique form of quotidian portraiture without one cancelling the other out. Silver takes one of the most politically disreputable of subgenres—the film in which a female stalks a male, embodying each person’s respective, stereotypical fears of rejection and obsession—and turns it upside down, stretching it so that we understand the stakes driving all parties. Paradoxically, the film is so empathetic that one doesn’t know where to place their empathy, and Silver’s mastery of tone recalls other filmmakers who’ve mixed tragedy and comedy to unmooring, exhilaratingly ambiguous ends, such as Alan Rudolph, Pedro Almodóvar, and Claude Chabrol.
From Rudolph and Almodóvar, Silver borrows and personalizes a puckishly hallucinatory sense of color and framing, merging it with his own sense of prismatic intricacy. Collaborating with the extraordinary cinematographer Sean Price Williams, Silver bathes Thirst Street in a vibrantly hazy tapestry of colors that might be collectively called “rainbow noir,” rendering a burlesque house of our movie-fed fantasies—a place employing people with dashed dreams who work to briefly enable the sensual fantasies of the clientele. Silver has often parodied loneliness without cheapening it, a trait that also aligns him with Rudolph and Almodóvar, and he explodes that tendency in Thirst Street. The film’s colors suggest hues of want, with a pregnant, transcendent self-pity that’s the very stuff for which we see melodrama.
From Chabrol, Silver borrows and personalizes a dry sense of menace—an understanding that disenfranchised characters are pitiable yet dangerous. The Chabrol association also stems from Thirst Street’s Paris setting, and from how Silver cannily adapts an attending French sensibility. American morals aren’t attached to the French characters; in fact, it’s this tension between American and French views of sex and domesticity that drives the film.
Gina (Lindsay Burdge) is an American flight attendant who meets Jérôme (Damien Bonnard) while on a layover in Paris, at the burlesque house where he works. They sleep together in a sex scene of dreamily erotic physicality, and Jérôme feels that that’s the extent of their collision. But the poetic narration by Anjelica Huston allows the viewer to know more than Jérôme: Gina is convinced that Jérôme is the love of her life, as he resembles a past boyfriend who committed suicide. And we know that Gina is isolated and adrift, accustomed to being ignored, and correspondingly hungry for the glamour that accompanies a love affair with a handsome Frenchman, as promised by the old Technicolor romances that she loves.
Silver amplifies this stew of friction with another tonal sleight of hand, rendering Gina’s misery in bouncy, romantic comic rhythms, as she clearly sees herself as a female protagonist in her first act, who’s only a man away from self-actualization. The filmmaker understands the classic romantic comedy and the stalker thriller as being conjoined by the same sexism—that is, the assumption that a woman needs a man—and he tweaks both genres while funneling their intensity into a prototypical Silver story of the outsider who destabilizes an intimate ecosystem.
Before Gina enters his life, Jérôme is a comfortable womanizer, working as a bartender while awaiting periodic visits from his traveling-musician girlfriend, Clémence (Esther Garrel). The audience is allowed to share in Jérôme’s comfort, as he appears to be living a rather enviable and emotionally lo-fi life. Gina doesn’t do anything so cathartically banal as boiling a rabbit; instead, she simply refuses to leave Jérôme alone, moving to Paris, getting a job at the burlesque, and renting an apartment across the street from Jérôme’s own. Jérôme initially appears to be a jerk, insensitively brushing Gina off, though he begins to handle her obsession with a greater degree of…well, sympathy isn’t the right word. Perhaps he handles Gina with self-centered accommodation, being nice because he’s afraid not to be nice to her.
It’s a testament to Silver’s keen sense of observation that we don’t want the film to turn decisively into thriller terrain, as it might disrupt the wonderfully wry comedy and sexuality. This degree of sex is also new to Silver’s work, and he imbues it with a hard yet delicate edginess that’s appropriate to a story set predominantly in a burlesque, which thrives on an artsy commodification of carnality. Silver films the half-naked bodies of women with a rapture that’s clinical yet undeniably hot, reveling in the intense power of the dancers without dehumanizing them. Yet Silver also finds humor behind the scenes of this factory of desire, in which the dancers pitch the concepts of their routines to the amusingly curt yet fatherly Franz (Jacques Nolot).
Silver captures a superbly varied set of performances from his cast, especially from Burdge and Bonnard, who oscillate between affection, need, and panic with a liquid ferocity that’s fascinating and moving. The supporting actors offer a variety of textural flourishes from the sidelines, including Silver’s mother, Cindy Silver, who, as another flight attendant, brings to Thirst Street her pervading sense of maternal decency, informing the film with its subtlest and most heartbreaking irony. Before meeting Jérôme, Gina already had a home, and she was appreciated by others, but that home didn’t live up to her fantasies. That home is invisible to Gina because it doesn’t vanquish her self-loathing, which is fueled by the very romantic fantasies that Silver simultaneously loves and distrusts.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 19—30.