VMDIFF 2019: Treat Me Like Fire
Director: Marie Monge Starring: Stacy Martin, Tahar Rahim Running Time: 105 minutes
It’s common practice for films in France to have very different titles in their native tongue than in the translated English. Marie Monge’s Treat Me Like Fire goes by the more straightforward Joueurs (“Players”) when shown at home, as it was during last year’s Cannes Film Festival. They seem like very different names at a glance but both ultimately have the same energy; Treat Me Like Fire a Lana Del Rey-ven cigarette exhale on the film’s story of burning, fleeting, dangerous romance, while “Players” is more Stevie Nicks to the ears, an indication not just of the film’s gambling content but of the general circumstances under which players will love you.
Stacy Martin of Nymphomaniac and Vox Lux (coming later this DIFF) stars in this sleazy romance/crime thriller as Ella, a bored bistro manager taken in despite her better judgement by Abel (Tahar Rahim of A Prophet, aptly Judas in Mary Magdalene), an obvious but charming bullshit artist that inserts himself into her workplace and then life. Abel raids the restaurant’s cash register in record time but chasing him down leads Ella into Paris’ underground gambling scene; after a push, her beginner’s luck is intoxicating and before long consummate pro Ella is late for work, jittery, infatuated, consummating elsewise with Abel; her own personal Gamblor, minus the neon claws.
Martin and Rahim have the chemistry needed to help viewers to buy into their Bonnie-and-Clyde brand of sexily doomed, which helps since on-page their relationship makes much more sense as a gambling metaphor that it does as an actual couple. As presented, Ella genuinely should know better than to be sucked in by a bad boy routine, but the thrill of doing wrong, surviving even when the odds are stacked high and the possibility of winning big in spite of all evidence is convincing, if simplistic. After their first night, the two throw stacks and stacks of money out of their pockets, but they never take their eyes off each other, a clear enough visual sign that it’s about to go down as to make the follow up almost unnecessary. There may actually be more scenes in Fire of Ella and Abel riding than gambling, but as a thematic stand ins go it’s a good fit and quite propulsive. So to speak.
Rarely using close ups, keeping the camera handheld and relying on bright, colourfully artificial Parisian lights, Monge artfully leers at the lovers, and a mix of Scorsese-style montages and some pulpy twists keep the film moving nicely. Where Fire stumbles a bit is when we get to the bad times; since their relationship works best metaphorically it isn’t especially compelling on a literal level and Ella’s character is left underdeveloped outside the romance: when Abel is revealing himself to be a letdown, she’s left static. Martin’s physicality works to her favour when things are heating up – quick constant glances, the way she seeks out Rahim’s touch – but it compounds the problems when the narrative falters; when she slouches, the film mopes around her. Wearing a new shorter hair cut and baggy hoodie too often she whimpers while things happen around her, like if the music video for Torn was also a gangster movie. For a whie, Treat Me Like Fire burns brightly enough, one wishes it wasn’t snuffed quite so easily.(3 / 5)