Any celebration of capitalism is bound to become criticism, given enough time and distance. The greatest public relations machine the West ever had was Hollywood, crafting legends of greatness for the world to admire and emulate, eclipsing any military intervention required to support private enterprise in the face of local resistance. Despite any particular conundrums, the machine has moved ever onwards, in ignorance of those flattened by the dream. Certain aspects of the media have managed to capture this dynamic in spite of itself, that target in motion. Recall Jean-Paul Belmondo admiring his gangster idols in Breathless before being gunned down whilst in thrall, or any similar acolytes that fail to heed the warnings of crime drama’s ‘buyer beware’ aesthetic? Challenging the law is a dubious prospect at best, yet such a foray is met with unmatched romanticism for some reason. Undoubtedly some vicarious desire projected from a middle class morality, shed from a feeling of failure to seize the day despite the prevailing of clearer heads. Maybe shooting for the stars works on occasion, but only in the fevered mind of a dreamer, especially those with a screenplay to excrete. Meanwhile, the world absorbs its worldview not from raw information provided by an intact and uncompromised Fourth Estate, but from television and corrupt media that has smaller fish to fry. This leaves the small and less than idealistic dreamer the odd person out. Fresh Bait considers this person with an unvarnished perspective, and utter lack of judgement.
Nathalie is a dreamer of a sort, and introduced in a wonderfully neutral series of scenes; she is a actress/model, meaning that she is a prostitute by shades. She collects numbers and names, and flirts furiously in the hope that a break will come, even though she must endure endless quasi-violent encounters on the way to immortality. More than a few interruptions occur in cabs and private cars where she must give time, venture into the private lives of men who are lonely and horny, all of whom have some important connection to film or fashion and can provide a conduit to something or another. Hers is a familiar path of the ambitious – to be ‘something’, whatever that is. She is not bitter about these encounters, but shrugs off as much as she can, and hopefully not destroy herself in the process. In the meantime, she minimizes the sexual aspect of her work to her boyfriend and the guy’s friend/odd live-in tenant, both of whom are drawn to her sexual prowess and live off her ambition. Neither have much desire to live legitimately, which in fairness is fairly meaningless. She pays the bills, and they hope for something better. Hope itself is a twisted central character in the form of media. Her boyfriend and accessory dude watch Scarface on a continual loop; they go shopping for VHS movies including only Hollywood action and terrible shit like Nightmare of Elm Street Part 6 (because part 1-5 were that good) while rejecting anything French as ‘garbage’. Bertrand Tavernier had a reckoning in mind with this train of thought, given his preoccupation with philosophy and morality in film. These characters are amoral and greedy, and attach their desire for materialism to a Hollywood relativism based more on entertainment value than any other quality. It worked for Tony Montana, and so it must work for anyone with the stones to hold forth, surely.
Fresh Bait is based on true events in Paris, where a girl and two guys carried on with a killing spree while stealing almost nothing of value. The affair was a triumph of amateur theatrics, and the film conveys this with extraordinary skill while communicating the utter compromise of any sort of morality scale. Nathalie uses her shallow connections with various lawyers, agents, or other minor professionals to set up robberies, while her boyfriend and the remora who lives with them provide the minimal muscle to carry out the job. They slowly learn that there is a reason they are only just scraping by – they have little talent for anything other than subsistence. While hyping themselves on Scarface, they do no real preparation for any task – no weapons training, no casing of establishments, and no networking with the criminal underworld to deal with stolen goods. They imagine they can earn millions of Francs doing home invasions of low-level professional businessmen. It happens all the time in the movies, right?† Even on the job, media is used to justify or ameliorate their impact; Nathalie puts on headphones while her roommate stabs a victim to death, and watches loud music videos to drown out the screams of another victim’s brutal murder. In Fresh Bait, media takes a front row seat to either justifying or blunting the impact of hateful brutality. Cognitive dissonance with the true impact of violence is the greatest value that media has. What could make the horrors of war palatable other than good PR assuring the masses that such sacrifice was part of the plan, and necessary to keep the world free and just, even if that sacrifice was complete bullshit? Nothing could distance the public better from the impact of street crime and drugs like dumbass action films – it is all in the game, as long as consumer confidence remains robust.
The attractive girl draws her man and the roommate who wishes he was her man into a destructive enterprise fueled by the ambitions that everyone shares. They are entrepreneurs who lack any real skill in the craft, and so they employ other means. There are few images in cinema that encapsulate American exceptionalism better than when Tony Montana glimpses “The World Is Yours” on a passing blimp. Fresh Bait references a real event in France while paying homage to the insane and self-destructive impulses borne of ambition where true talent is void. Nathalie is played by a coy Marie Gillain as a upwardly mobile young woman who believes in the working class dream. Their criminal dalliance is utterly amateurish, but almost professionally informed by films. When a gun goes off, they search diligently for the shell that could betray them, rather than running like hell to avoid witnesses, or planning any of their jobs with any sort of care. It all should come so easy, because after all, the jobs come off so well on screen. The unspoken lesson, if there must be one, is ‘let the buyer beware’. Sounds trite, but it is astonishing how much of the understanding of the world comes from television and film. In my experience, people are utterly shocked that CPR only works about 15% of the time in cardiac arrest, considering that it works every single time on the tube.
Materialism is the actor and the author of the events of Fresh Bait – Nathalie strives to achieve some sort of comfort, as do we all, while her boyfriend dreams of starting his own clothing supply company in the United States. That nation remains the stuff of dreams, with money flowing in the gutters and a lack of any regulation to disrupt the actions of business. Their actions belie their lack of true ability, but the dreams never cease. Even as the police net closes around them and the murders to which they can claim credit, there is no concern of the lives destroyed by their malice. In one revelatory scene, a victim negotiates well for his life to no avail. He makes a compelling case, and intuits that the men are more afraid than he is, but all is lost because the bottom line is what matters. No witnesses, and no mercy in the free market, I’m afraid. When our beautiful protagonist is finally captured, she signs her confession and admires the designer pen; she expresses her desire to go free, because after all she just wants the best for herself, and her good looks have gotten her this far. She remarked before that film and television executives felt that “It is never me that they want”. She decided ultimately that success must come by hook or by crook – would any of us do differently under the circumstances?
Bertrand Tavernier is truly one of the greatest of directors when it comes to capturing the essentials of human nature. Coup De Torchon, Let Joy Reign Supreme, and Life and Nothing But are classic films that deal with the complexities of our species, and are essential viewing for anyone longing to understand or utterly baffled by who we are and what we do. Tavernier manages to address the questions while leaving it all a mystery.