Next time someone wistfully insists, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” why not point that nostalgic cinephile to the work of Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon? The Belgium-based creative couple are almost single-handedly keeping the classic burlesque tradition alive on screen — if the word “single-handedly” can fairly be used to describe a near-silent comic duo with four hands between them, plus a growing company of collaborators (including dancer Kaori Ito) and a prosthetic arm with a mind of its own.
In “The Falling Star,” Abel and Gordon bring their old-school comedic sensibility to what could loosely be described as a detective story, told in a film noir style punctuated with flashes of color: a red dress, a tiny green car, a bright yellow scooter. Centered around a tiny Brussels bar, the pair’s relatively minor new project (a step back from 2017’s sublime “Lost in Paris,” which co-starred screen legends Emmanuele Riva and Pierre Richard) features a missing persons investigation, a sorta-kinda kidnapping, a fugitive couple tired of running and a one-armed assassin. Story-wise, these ingredients can feel a little too complicated at times. As a springboard for sight gags, however, such eccentricity has its purposes.
“The Falling Star” opens with activist-turned-bartender Boris (Abel) unexpectedly being recognized by a man who (it takes a bit of deduction on our part to realize) lost his arm years ago in a blast Boris was responsible for. Played by Abel and Gordon’s longtime collaborator Bruno Romy, the bearded stranger whips out a gun and takes a shot, missing Boris by a mile. Turns out trusting your trigger finger to a bionic arm isn’t such a great idea in the first of many bizarro jokes involving the scene-stealing limb.
As it happens, Boris is also haunted by the long-ago attack, reenacting the bomb scare and subsequent pursuit every night in his dreams. The overhead view of Boris and his wife Kayoko (Ito) trying to outrun the cops in their sleep is just the kind of silliness fans have come to expect from ex-clown Abel, whose sense of humor assumes a darker streak this time around. Between the local bus strike and an absurdist demonstration by hospital workers, a sense of societal unrest permeates the otherwise hermetic microcosm in which the film takes place. (The movie rarely features more than one or two extras at a time until a big scene near the end where protestors take to the streets.)
After the close call, Boris realizes that his cover is blown and the angry customer is likely to return. But then a solution presents itself: While driving through town, he and Kayoko discover Dom (also Abel), a sullen-looking guy who’s the spitting image of Boris. They send the bar’s bouncer, Tim (Philippe Martz), to pick up the bloke and offer him a job as Boris’ replacement, conveniently leaving out the key detail: that a one-armed man will soon be back to kill him.
As film plots go, this one’s as dumb as they come, but provides an excuse for Abel to goof around in two separate but semi-interchangeable roles. Gordon, on the other hand, has comparably little to do, appearing rather late in the story as an ineffective private detective, Fiona. Practically the entire ensemble appears to be suffering from varying degrees of depression, which can be chalked up to lost loves, lost arms and lost causes, but lacks the emotional dimension for audiences to care. For example, we learn that Dom and Fiona were once married, but split after the death of their child (the characters keep barely missing one another at the kid’s gravesite).
Trading places, Boris and Dom get a taste of one another’s lives. Kayoko falls for her husband’s stand-in, while Fiona tries to repair things with her ex, not realizing another man has taken his place. Fiona’s investigation eventually leads her to the bar (whose neon sign gives the film its title), where the man with the gun seeks his revenge, but not before a synchronized dance number. Each scene is meticulously composed and choreographed, serving up no shortage of memorable individual moments (like the sight of the two leads, sobbing in separate stalls, blowing their noses with the same roll of toilet paper).
Abel and Gordon’s films owes a certain debt to Aki Kaurismaki under normal circumstances, but this one suffers from an unforeseeable similarity to the Finnish director’s latest, “Fallen Leaves” (enough so that they ought to retitle this one “The Shooting Star” in English). Both films take place in and around neighborhood bars, taking a pathetic interest in the lives of their patrons. But this one lacks the magnetic tug audiences can’t help but feel when a sad lonely man and a sad lonely woman orbit one another for 90-odd minutes. Here, we get 98 very odd minutes with hardly a hint of romance. Turns out, it’s that spark — lost in Paris, perhaps — “The Falling Star” lacks.