You’ve seen this story a hundred times. Unstable Woman sleeps with Insouciant Man; his attempt at polite post-coital rebuff goes unheeded (you can tell it will because of the way she looks at him, all goony and unblinking, while he’s trying to let her down easy); she shows up at his job and he says “what are you doing here?”; her attentions become increasingly invasive, upending his professional life and disrupting his actual romance (with a wife/girlfriend who inevitably says “I want her out of our lives”); Man finally grabs Woman by the shoulders and yells at her that he never wants to see her again, which naturally sends Woman into a frenzied but productive rage; in the end, everybody ends up bleeding, or worse—the attraction, needless to say, is fatal. Such is the hoary narrative scaffolding on which Nathan Silver’s Thirst Street is built, and which Silver—arguably the most anarchic director in American independent narrative cinema—deconstructs with a glee that manages to be at once perverse and deeply humane.
Our Unstable Woman is Gina (Lindsay Burdge), an American flight attendant reeling from the recent suicide of her lover. Our Insouciant Man is Jerome (Damien Bonnard), a louche bar manager/coke monkey at a low-rent Parisian “cabaret.” Gina meets Jerome on a layover night out, and it’s obsession-at-first-sight; after all, the fortune teller she saw earlier in the day told her she would meet a “great love” with “something in the eye,” and damned if Jerome hasn’t got a serious case of conjunctivitis. Back in the States, she goes to the drugstore for Plan B (Jerome wanted to do it au natural) but demurs when the pharmacist asks her if she wants ointment for her own by-now raging pinkeye. “No, no, it’s okay,” she says, looking down and smiling a private sort of smile. Then she moves to Paris.
Crazy, right? Well, not quite, or not only. As a director, Silver has always evinced close fellow-feeling with the untethered—people in great pain, pain that has edged them into genuine hysteria—and his inversion of the standard lady-stalker narrative asks us to identify with Gina, rather than her not-so-innocent “victim.” His lead actress gives him a great deal of help in this effort. Burdge specializes in playing women for whom psychosis seems to be a natural extension of vulnerability, as she does in Hannah Fidell’s A Teacher or in Karyn Kusama’s overwrought sleight-of-hand The Invitation, which she walks away with at around the halfway point. Few actors working right now can be so simultaneously disarming and menacing—as Burdge renders them, her characters nearly always come off like good people of integrity possessed by a maleficent spirit whom they themselves have, for secret reasons, invited inside. She does not seem capable of playing someone uncomplicated and Gina, even as the Thirst Street’s screenplay pushes her to single-minded and delusional extremes, never seems less than a woman engaged in a profound struggle.
The presiding spirit of Silver’s previous films has been a kind of Cassavetian chaos, but in Thirst Street a different style obtains, reminiscent of Fassbinder at his most lurid and pitiless. Silver and his cinematographer (the happily ubiquitous Sean Price Williams) render Gina’s Paris in hooker-district reds and gauzy whites, a scrim of artifice that acts as a counterpoint to the naked feeling of Burdge’s performance—that Parisian fortune teller’s creepy boudoir is not only the site of Gina’s infernal inspiration, but the primary model for the movie’s color scheme. Which is entirely appropriate, because Silver’s Paris is, first and foremost, a hothouse of deception and evasion and casual cruelty, a site for the simulacrum of affection rather than the real thing—it’s not for nothing that much of the movie takes place within the confines of the strip club where Jerome works, and where Gina eventually talks her way into a job. Here it seems important to mention the voice-over narration, delivered in the past-tense and third person by none other than Anjelica Huston (!), relaying Gina’s inner disarray with all the casual gravitas of movie star royalty. And so it isn’t just Jerome’s intractability against which Gina struggles, nor her escalating obsession, but the city’s narrative, the movie’s narrative style, a series of narratives over which she has no control. She is trapped in a story of someone else’s making; who wouldn’t go crazy? Who wouldn’t take matters into her own hands?
At times, the movie flirts with the questionable trope of the American Authentic In the Land of the European Meanies, but Silver is too keen and liquid an observer of people to ever settle for long into comfortable binaries. Everybody here, no matter his or her country of origin, is capable of kindness, and is also doing some very messed up shit, including the director himself—after all, who designed this torture chamber? In the end, Thirst Street feels like one of the most sensitive exploitation movies ever made. It is a small film, and maybe a transitional one, haunted by elements of countless other films; it is also not quite like anything else.