The ménage à trois drama Wild Side takes its name from Lou Reed’s affectionate sleaze anthem and does indeed feature a transgender protagonist who never loses her head even when she’s giving head. But the song that opens the film is a more fitting tone setter: “Fell in Love With a Dead Boy,” a brittle lament plaintively warbled by bluesy androgyne Antony (of the Johnsons) to a rapt audience of Parisian transsexuals (“Are you a boy or a girl?”). Sébastien Lifshitz’s gender-blurring mosaic of bruised lives is an alternative-family endorsement with a premise that sounds like a barroom joke: Ever hear the one about the bisexual Russian army deserter, the Algerian rent boy, and the pre-op transsexual French hooker? There’s nothing lewd about the punchline, though, which proposes a nurturing polyamorous threesome as a sustainable design for living.
Weary of walking the Paris streets, Stéphanie (Stéphanie Michelini) returns to her deserted provincial hometown to care for her dying mother (who still calls her Pierre). She’s joined there first by Mikhail (Edouard Nikitine), an illegal immigrant she met under less than romantic circumstances, and then by her roommate Jamel (Yasmine Belmadi), a hustler who conducts his business in the public toilets at railway stations. Stéphanie declines to choose between the two men, so it’s just as well that they’re attracted to each other. Taking a cue from the characters’ splintered, shifting identities, the movie takes shape as a poetic assemblage of serrated fragments. Chronology is almost free-associational as Lifshitz sketches in bits of backstory, assigning equal weight to each side of the love triangle. While Jocelyn Pook’s doleful string score flirts with parodic self-seriousness, Agnès Godard’s sensuous cinematography achieves a Nan Goldin-esque immediacy, at once harsh and intimate. Like Come Undone (2000), Lifshitz’s last film to receive U.S. distribution, Wild Side matches sexual directness with an emotional discretion. In both movies, copious ellipses and a general reticence serve largely to sidestep the sentimental clichés built into the scenarios. Still, Lifshitz successfully maneuvers his trio of outcasts toward a state of grace: His vision of misfit utopianism, in its own quiet way, is as defiant as anything in Fassbinder.