If nothing else comes from Nathan Silver’s Thirst Street, a thoroughly bonkers erotic thriller that seems deliberately tone-deaf and jarring in much the same manner as Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon (2016), it’s that lead actress Lindsay Burdge is a force of nature, one the industry should wise up to immediately. If her performance as Gina, a dangerously unhinged stalker, was transplanted into a major release, I have few doubt there would be awards buzz. But Thirst Street is destined for no such infamy. It’s dwarfed by the power of Burdge’s performance to such a degree that its periodically obnoxious stylistic flourishes and querulous narrative logic fall away, leaving us with the impression of a character, not an entire film. And while some filmmakers are able to channel such manic performances without sacrificing the film itself on the alter of their scenery-chewing—Werner Herzog’s collaborations with Klaus Kinski come to mind—Silver hasn’t yet reached that point.
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what Silver is trying to do with Thirst Street. The vast majority is shot and structured like a traditional thriller, complete with striking shot compositions, surreal hallucination sequences, and erotic interludes. But the opening five minutes are shot like a soap opera. An omniscient and detached narrator introduces us to the emotionally needy Gina, an American flight attendant who falls in love with a passenger. As literal organ music drones in the background, the narrator recounts how their brief yet passionate relationship was cut short by the man’s unexpected suicide, mentally shattering Gina. The title card flashes and the movie proper begins, leaving us to wonder what the point was of those first five minutes. Was Silver highlighting the artificial nature of erotic thrillers through a quasi-Brechtian flourish? Whatever the case, that narration remains for the rest of the film, much to our chagrin.
As the film continues, the still reeling Gina has a one-night stand with a charming cabaret bartender named Jerome (Damien Bonnard) during a layover in Paris. Quickly obsessing over him, she impulsively quits her job, buys an apartment across the street from his own, and gets a job as a waitress at his cabaret. And even on days when they’re not working the same shift, she has a way of “unexpectedly” bumping into him on the street, said bumpings usually ending with a quick fling. As Gina’s behavior becomes more and more erratic, she loses her job at the cabaret, humiliates herself by trying to return to her old flight attendant job, gets thrown out of her new apartment, and almost gets raped by a homeless man while sleeping on a park bench in her old uniform. But Gina refuses to be deterred: Jerome will be hers, even if she has to hurt him to get him.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of Burdge’s performance is that there’s not really a single moment where we see Gina snap. From her first moments on camera we know she’s not well. The only thing that changes as the film continues is the intensity of that unwellness—it swells in unnoticeable increments until all we can do is stare in abject horror as she slips into her own madness. And unlike many performers who portray insanity through flailing histrionics and overacting, Burdge’s menace comes largely from the opposite: unnerving calmness and calculation giving way to moments of panic.
And yet the most fascinating figure in Thirst Street isn’t Gina, it’s Jerome. He pegs her from the start as a quick, emotionally-vulnerable lay. And though he expresses visible disgust and repulsion towards her afterwards, he never turns her away from sex until it’s too late. Why does he do this? He knows she’s not well. He actively tries to avoid her. And yet he can’t turn her down, even when she transparently begs to come up to his apartment because she “lost her earring there.” Maybe Silver is trying to make a point saying more about emotionally and sexually manipulative men than the possibly psychotic women they toy with. But I doubt it. Thirst Street remains baffling and confused, unworthy of Burdge’s performance.