Joueurs (Treat Me Like Fire) review – high-stakes gambling tale holds all the aces

Tahar Rahim and Stacy Martin star in the story of a Parisian waitress drawn into a desperate underworld of addiction by a charismatic parasite

First-time feature director Marie Monge brings her terrific drama-thriller Joueurs to the Director’s Fortnight section of Cannes. The English title she has attached to it is “Treat Me Like Fire”. Actually, I think the simple translation “Players” is better.

It’s an old-school lowlife adventure in the Paris underworld of gambling, co-written by Romain Compingt and Julien Guetta with Monge herself, clearly inspired at one level by Jacques Audiard, and further back by movies such as Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur and Godard’s Bande à Part. There’s also a classic tour-guide sequence around the illegal casino, with clued-in narrative voiceover, the camera roaming around and noticing all the scams and dodges going on, invisible to the outsider: maybe a little of Ocean’s Eleven here. Generic it might be, but Monge brings a headlong energy and gusto to this picture, siphoning off the unwholesome addictive buzz of gambling into her film. Her leads, Tahar Rahim and Stacy Martin, are on very good form.

Martin is Ella, a conscientious but bored waitress working in a busy Paris restaurant owned by her dad. One night, a young guy has the effrontery to waltz into the kitchen via the staff-only entrance and start helping her carry wine-cases around. This is the fast-talking, broad-smiling Abel, played by an extremely well cast Rahim. He asks for a job, gets a trial and seems to be an experienced restaurant worker, quick to learn the ropes. Ella is pleased in spite of herself by his charm, particularly his intuitive guessing-game: figuring out what the patrons are thinking, and perhaps what she is thinking as well. Not until it’s too late does Ella realise that she has entrusted him with access to the cash register.

Abel, with the boiling need of addiction inside him, wants that fistful of cash to play at the illegal gambling club. And he has another, stranger need: to seduce Ella into the same thirst, to jab the needle of gambling into her pristine arm. She goes with him, has an extraordinary streak of beginner’s luck which splits her sulky face into an ear-to-ear grin, and is lost for ever. The pair embark on a ruinous amour fou, and Abel introduces her to the third wheel of their relationship: his sweet-natured cousin Nacim (Karim Leklou). Nacim is a mechanic who facilitates Abel’s side-interest in drag-racing, and also his general wingman and enabler. Of course, the awful spectre of loss looms, along with the much-feared debt collector Diako (Jean-Michel Correia) who is to force Ella into a new, sinister racket, involving the 12-step programmes for gambling addicts, of which Ella is now very much one.

Abel is a sociopath, a parasite, a bipolar character who can drink and gamble and talk and seduce all night and into the next morning on the euphoric high of winning. But then he is deeply depressed, all but unable to speak, looking terrible. There is an interesting scene showing the pair’s wide-eyed excitement after a gambling splurge, back in Ella’s kitchen, taking wodges of cash they had almost forgotten about from every pocket. (Bryce Carlson’s gambling classic Blackjack for Blood has a very similar description.) It is a kind of erotic undressing that is of course the prelude to sex. Weirdly, Martin reminded me quite a lot of Lili Taylor in Abel Ferrara’s vampire movie The Addiction.

Apart from everything else, Abel is a swindler, and like all long-term conmen he is compulsive, a method-actor of self-delusion, whose duplicity controls him rather than the other way around. He does, however, have a rational sense of keeping open the option of tricking his lovers and friends out of their cash so that he can, if necessary, vanish into the Paris streets. Monge has created a satisfying drama of doomed obsession, the gambler’s thrill that staves off, for a few moments, a weariness with life. It’s a film with, as they say, something of the night about it.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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