If there was one feature that lived up to its title in Berlin this year, it’s Bizarre, French director Etienne Faure’s squiggle of a film about a directionless and taciturn French teenager — with the prerequisite pout, hard abs and studiedly nonchalant way of always being semi-disrobed — who finds refuge in a Bushwick burlesque bar run by two girlfriends who are into (rather explicit) sex with other guys. Often indeed too bizarre for words, this collection of sounds and images in desperate need of a plot, or even just some recognizable human behavior, will appeal to that shady part of the queer market where young cuties plus the promise of nudity are enough for at least some VOD and DVD sales.
Even before the film really gets going, Maurice (Pierre Prieur, fresh out of high school when this was filmed), informs the audience that he was asked by the director to do his voice-over in English even though he’s from France. A broodingly attractive Frenchie in search of a home and a backstory, Maurice finds at least the former when he’s adopted by one half of a female couple (Rebekah Underhill) who run the titular burlesque bar in Brooklyn, though why and how exactly he’s taken under their wings remains something of a mystery, as the film shows their first, apparently random encounter on a subway platform with all the dialogue drowned out by the noise of the passing trains.
Indeed, it’s never clear what pushes the young woman to walk up to that random stranger, perhaps compliment him on his top-notch moping skills, and then inquire if he happens to be homeless and is looking for a job and whether he’d want to get his cute French hands dirty in her bar’s dishwater, wants to move into her place over the bar and occasionally sleep in her and her girlfriend’s (Raquel Nave) bed, which of course has a no-underwear-allowed rule (one assumes to get the most out of those no-doubt expensive, high-thread-count, Egyptian-cotton sheets).
But logic is not this film’s strong suit and Maurice thus moves in and soon finds his own bed in the guest room invaded by his colleague, Luka (Adrian James, who looks like Keira Knightley’s elfin brother), who forgets his keys at his own apartment one day and then inexplicably ends up sleeping in Maurice’s bed for all subsequent nights (if he Airbnb’d out his own room in the meantime, the movie never shows it). Luka’s clearly into Maurice, who’s either the world’s biggest cocktease or frustratingly ambivalent about his sexuality and unwilling to experiment, telling his bedmate he has to face away from him so he can’t see the Frenchman’s moue when they’re in bed. Indeed, the rather particular rules of bedroom and bedtime etiquette in this Brooklyn apartment, which almost approaches that of the infamous Red Room from Fifty Shades of Grey, is the only thing in the film that could be qualified as “complex”.
Much to Luka’s frustration, Maurice has a very flirty rapport with Charlie (Charlie Himmelstein), a boxer friend and sex fiend who’s straight but concedes he’ll do anything that moves — cue Luka’s confession that he moves, Maurice’s subsequent scene of jealousy, which goes nowhere, and Charlie’s willingness to stir the pot even further by then sleeping with the girls running the bar.
The problem of Bizarre is that it’s all much too loose-limbed to amount to anything. Its apparent desire to be non-committal to a specific character, storyline or idea means it ends up being about nothing at all. It’s not a portrait of a sexually liberated, makeshift band of outsiders, because the film insists on remaining entirely indecisive about Maurice’s own sexuality and, for all its gay and queer characters, has a strange double standard in that the only explicit act of copulation involves three supporting characters, Charlie and the girls, involved mainly in heterosexual practices. But neither is it a thriller about a young man haunted by his shady past, despite the fact Maurice carries a symbolic knife around at all times; is clearly scared of a louche customer (Luc Bierme) equally devoid of a backstory and despite the film’s last reel, in which whatever goodwill the essentially unreadable Maurice character had built up with the audience will evaporate because his acts become both brutal and senseless.
At least the performances have a kind of hard-edged steeliness to them that avoids them from becoming too wooden, though scenes of Maurice walking down the street, filmed from behind as if Brooklyn where a kind of pimped-up hipster version of the Dardenne brothers’ Seraing, take up way too much running time. Some of the occasionally outre burlesque routines, of which there are also way too many, are pretty good but none of them are even vaguely tied into the plot, despite the fact there are acts featuring Luka in drag or a half-naked, blindfolded Maurice who allows himself to be kissed by strangers for money (if ever a scene could potentially comment on Maurice’s ambivalence about being loved, this is it).
The film’s sound mix isn’t always entirely clean and Faure relies too often on musical montages or the absence of audible dialogues to introduce major characters, practically denying them an entrance that would at least partially explain who they are. Production design and cinematography, by Faure’s partner, Stephane Gizard, and Paris-based Serbian d.o.p. Pavle Savic, respectively, are bohemian on a budget.