The Golden Gate Bridge is a massive structure possessing an almost forbidding beauty. Not gold, really, but hues of orange, cadmium and cinnabar depending on the light, often filtered by fog banks that can so densely shroud the enormous towers and arching span that it becomes surreal. From a distance, it is formidable and strikingly lovely, the cold bay far below, an occasional tanker passing below.




The bridge is also a magnet. Thousands of tourists walk across it yearly, linger with cameras poised to shoot the breathtaking San Francisco skyline.




And then there are those, as shown in Eric Steel's documentary, "The Bridge," who come to contemplate their final moments before crawling over the high railing, drop down on the walkway, and make a final and irrevocable decision to jump.




During 2004, Steel and his crew photographed the bridge during daylight hours, capturing its image in a hundred different poses. They also focused on certain individuals who stopped, not to look at the stretching beauty beyond, but to engage in an internal dialogue that will never be disclosed. One man walks back and forth talking on a cell phone, laughing, fully engaged in conversation, and then closes the phone and, as the camera rolls, crawls over the guard rail and drops into the bay. It happens so quickly, so abruptly, that it seems to have been an illusion. A trick of some kind.




But as Steel's documentary reveals, this happens on average 24 times each year. People of all descriptions appear on the bridge, having made an existential decision to end their lives in this place of breathtaking vistas.




There are moments when "The Bridge" becomes a metaphor for contemporary urban life. Steel's footage captures an endless stream of people walking the span, talking, an occasional bike rider and jogger. In one scene a young woman crawls over the rail and sits just below on the cat walk, staring out at the bay. No one seems to notice. She is clearly visible, but no one pauses or takes notice. Hundreds of feet below a tanker moves languidly into the bay.




There is one moment in the film when a woman crawls onto the cat walk and sits looking down. A passing tourist, camera in hand, spots her and begins photographing her. He leans over the railing and clearly tries to get her attention, and then reaches down and grabs her by the hood of her sweat shirt managing to pull her upright and back over the rail.




Interviewed by Steel later, the man remarks that for a moment, photographing the woman perched on the edge of the walk, he felt strangely detached and apart. As if his role in the scene was simply to record it and not intervene. Because the film has no voice over, Steel doesn't comment on this; however, it is exactly the dilemma he and his camera crew face as they film individuals who pace and linger, pause and look off in the distance, clearly not on the bridge to absorb the sights, but to end what for some has been a short but clearly agonizing life. Should he intervene? Throughout the film Gene Sprague, 34-years-old stands on the span, his long black hair blowing in the steady wind. He walks and stops, leans on the rail, and moves on, slowly. Steel cuts away to an interview with Sprague's parents who talk about Gene, who struggled for years with his demons. His father looks sadly into the camera and says, "Some people say the body is a temple. He thought his body was a prison." The final shot is of Gene climbing up on the railing, balancing, and then dropping backward down toward the water below.




"The Bridge" is not a clinical study of suicide. No mental health professionals are interviewed. Instead, the film, as a whole, asks that universal question as to why anyone would prematurely end their life. What torment, what agony must be involved to summon the will to stand on that walk, look down and then fall forward? It's unthinkable, yet we know it is ever so common, that part of the human condition that takes us into the realm of the metaphysical.




"Valet"




In contrast to the weight of "The Bridge" is the sweet French film, "Valet." Some might call it a slight comedy, a bit farcical, perhaps, but enjoyable. It's also a reminder that the French can take the most improbable scenario and spin it into a tale both entertaining and delightful. It's tempting to lay out the plot of the film, but truthfully it is better to see "Valet" with not a shred of information other than it will make you smile.




It also has a strong ensemble cast, led by Daniel Auteuil, one of France's finest actors, and someone who can do light comedy with aplomb. He plays a conniving tycoon, Pierre, who has more on his emotional plate than he can deal with, meaning a wife and a mistress. Feeling trapped, he concocts a scheme that only the French would think could ever resemble reality. But no matter, these are all charming people who are trying to do the right thing &

with the exception of Pierre who is intent on doing the wrong thing hoping it will hold together. "Valet" is breezy and nicely done and won't disappoint.