Stuart Cooper’s WWII-er/D-Day-er Overlord fuses documentary and fiction. The 1975 black-and-white film took the Special Jury Prize at Berlin. It’s British.
Kubrick’s John Alcott is the cinematographer. The “lad” who is the protagonist doesn’t seem quite as young as he is supposed to be (he turns 21 in the course of the action), but that’s okay.
Among the materials it borrows are shots from one of my favorite British films, the 1942 I Was a Fireman by Humphrey Jennings (my 100 Greatest English-Language Films list is elsewhere on this site). In any case, the films to which Overlord needs to be compared are Kubrick’s Full-Metal Jacket (1987)—Cooper’s film also includes basic training—and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). Cooper’s low-budget, bare-bones treatment is vastly superior to both those monstrosities. Its “clichés” engrave a common experience—something the British are awfully good at doing in films. The girl-boy dance-walk-conversation is a sweet respite, one of the film’s high points: “I know, you thought the dance was awfully dull.” “I didn’t really.” That’s a boy’s bashful lie and bold truth; for him the dance wasn’t dull only because of her. (Julie Neesam’s performance is fleetingly wonderful, especially at their parting.) I have no defenses against a moment like this.
And, of course, the British are marvelous at weaving songs into dramatic and documentary materials, making the familiar tunes especially poignant by the context they are given.
Tom, the boy, writes home: “All we seem to do is stay in trucks and barracks, waiting for our bit of the war to start.” That’s a great line! Tom adds, “I don’t think I shall live to see the end of this war. . . . I didn’t want you to receive one of those official letters without knowing what’s inside.” That is as close to expressing pure adolescence, its insufferable egotism and selfishness, as anything I’ve encountered in a film. At the same time, it haunts and pierces the listener’s heart, given the killing and dying context of war. (Tom turns out also to have been prescient.) Christopher Hudson and Cooper co-authored the screenplay.
The closing aerial shots are sad and mysterious—overwhelming.
Cooper, incidentally, was born in Hoboken.
Archive for April 19th, 2007
Stuart Cooper’s WWII-er/D-Day-er Overlord fuses documentary and fiction. The 1975 black-and-white film took the Special Jury Prize at Berlin. It’s British.
Originally released in the States under the meek title This Man Must Die, Que la bête meure is a very beautiful film by Claude Chabrol. It is based on the 1938 British novel The Beast Must Die, by Nicholas Blake—the pseudonym that poet (and future Poet Laureate) Cecil Day-Lewis used for his authorial forays into popular mysteries. (Day-Lewis was the future father of Daniel Day-Lewis, both of them winning competitive Oscars in major categories. Cecil won for his contribution to the adaptation of Shaw’s Pygmalion, 1938; Daniel, for playing writer Christy Brown in Jim Sheridan’s My Left Foot, 1989, and again for the lead role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, 2007.)
As it happens, the protagonist of Que la bête meure is also a writer. Charles Thenier writes children’s stories. He lives in Brittany with his young son, Michel, whom we see at the beginning at the shore, the two fishing nets that he is toting, whose reduced size suits his own small size, accomplishing at least two things: it provides a visual echo of David Gray, the dreamer-protagonist in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s great Vampyr (1931), a film that enters otherwordly territory (Gray’s introduction is shot so as to make it seem possible that, although perfectly dry, he has walked right out of the sea) in order to explore the mortal anxiety that permeates human consciousness and unconsciousness; it suggests that Michel’s seaside “play” bears also a domestic, hence, practical component, as though he were fishing to make a contribution to that day’s dinner table, possibly as a means of pleasing his father. He is relaxed and smiling, utterly carefree, as he heads home. One of the nets is empty, while the other holds a couple of shellfish, perhaps clams that he has dug up.
But it is his terribly young life that (it turns out) the mesh of his vacant net cannot hold: his life and, wrapped up in this, his father’s life. When Michel becomes the fatal victim of a hit-and-run road accident, Charles sets out on a willful course of vengeance. He is determined to identify the killer and dispatch him. Michel’s death has left him utterly alone (except for a loyal, motherly housekeeper); the absence of Michel’s mother/Charles’s partner or wife is never explained, and it is possible that Charles’s grief over the loss of Michel opens the wound of this other loss of his. He is a bereaved audience-of-one haunting home movies of the young son he has lost. We see (presumably) the child’s mother, Charles’s arms wrapped around her, in these black-and-white images (the film is otherwise in color except for one other passage, in which material after the murder of Michel’s killer appears in the latter’s home on black-and-white television), and we wonder whether this woman, whoever she is or was, has died or has abandoned partner and child. Regardless, Charles possesses a stormed soul and a battered heart.
The film opens magnificently, with Michel stooped and working on the wet beach, the long-shot becoming longer and longer as the camera seems to pull farther and farther back, reducing the boy to a dot in the sand—infinitely precious (for being the only human being in the frame), and as fragile as the rest of us. I say that “the camera seems to pull farther and farther back,” because the camera may be doing no such thing. It may be perfectly fixed; Chabrol may be (and probably is) zooming out—a manipulation of a camera lens rather than the movement of the camera itself. Why bring up this technical ambiguity? Because Chabrol thus introduces the theme of ambiguity that is at the heart—or, rather, the mind—of this movie. So very little in Que la bête meure is reducible to plain, unambiguous narrative. Rather than “telling” a story, Chabrol’s film questions the story it purports to tell.
Another element, one of editing, participates in this brilliant pre-credit opening. Chabrol crosscuts between Michel, who seems thoroughly happy and safe as he ambles into the town square (the camera moves past church, whose bells are ringing, and bakery in order to spot the child), and a black car as it pursues a course rendered severe by its confinement to rigidly defined roads. Chabrol flips from objective to point-of-view shooting, from outside to inside the car, from long-shot to a dehumanizing closeup of the driver’s hand on the gear stick. Indeed, a subsequent shot in this crosscutting series further dehumanizes the driver by showing only the front of the car through the windshield, not the driver or his front-seat companion—not his wife, we later learn, but his wife’s sister, who romantically clings to him. This is a film about deceit and betrayal as well as about revenge.
Commentators generally find a Langian note of fate in the crosscutting between cheerful boy and relentless car. Perhaps. I see the visual procedure culminating in the boy’s death a little differently. Whereas Michel is in his element in the town square, this is no protection from the driver of the car, whose failure to slow down there, in addition to that shot of his hand on the gear stick, suggests the driver’s responsibility rather than the cruel workings of fate. Things aren’t out of the driver’s hands but in them. This suggestion is reinforced when his companion screams right after the point of impact and, as he drives off, the driver snaps at her, “Shut up!” Indeed, this is a film much more geared towards individual and shared responsibility than to any notion of destiny.
There is another aspect to the film’s pre-credit opening that needs to be addressed. The shots of the automobile in motion are conjoined with Katleen Ferrier’s singing the first song in “Vier Ernste Gesänge,” by Johannes Brahms. Part of the lyric, drawn from the Book of Ecclesiastes, reflects on the consequences for humans of usurping God’s prerogative by pursuing revenge: “If the beast must die, so must the man,” that is to say, the avenging slayer of the beast. “One and the other must die.” I have no idea whether the source of this (gorgeous) music is, as most assume, the car radio; it could as easily belong to the film’s soundtrack and nothing else. In any case, it is loud, and, because of the crosscutting, it’s disorienting, sharply interrupting the silence each time the black automobile appears close up. There is a dead-endedness to it, perhaps, because it belongs, along with the three other songs in the series, to the final work that Brahms composed. Moreover, it “reappears” at film’s end, with Charles in long-shot in a sailboat on the ocean, a visual echo of the opening image of Charles’s son on the beach with the ocean nearby. Accompanied by the music, the camera loses Charles as it pans screen-left to take in the silent ocean, whose sudden crashing sound, perhaps implying Charles’s suicide, replaces the music.
But wait! The Brahms had been identified with Paul Decourt, Michel’s killer, not Charles. Doesn’t Chabrol then show an incredible lapse of judgment at the end of Que la bête meure? No. Once the film is properly understood, one sees that Charles’s search for his son’s killer is a search for himself. This symbolical element often participates, at some level, in detective fiction, and it carries ancient echoes, appearing literally in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex.
Where does one begin with this train of thought? Well, there are a number of correspondencies established between Charles and Paul (the names, incidentally, of the two boys whose fates are intertwined in Chabrol’s Les cousins,* 1959). Both men live in Brittany, and therefore Charles’s search for whoever killed Michel leads him away from Brittany back to Brittany. Hélène, Paul’s sister-in-law: she was once Paul’s mistress and is currently Charles’s mistress. We see Paul act violently towards Hélène (and others); we see Charles act violently towards her. Michel and Philippe, Paul’s teenaged son, look alike; they are played by brothers Stéphane and Marc di Napoli. By the end of the film, Paul has been murdered and Charles may be headed towards suicide.
As stated, the film is largely ambiguous. This ambiguity achieves its apotheosis in the narrative’s (ir)resolution, where it is impossible for us to determine who murdered Paul: Charles, in his son’s name, or Paul’s own son, Philippe. Each in turn confesses to the crime, each of them either telling the truth or sacrificing himself for the sake of the other. All this proceeds from the warm bond that has developed between Charles and Philippe, whom Paul abuses physically and verbally. For Charles, Philippe is a substitute for Michel; for Philippe, Charles is a kinder, more supportive father than his biological one. At least in part, Charles and Philippe are bound together in hatred of Paul.
Chabrol’s pursuit of ambiguity raises questions about what we think we know about Charles. For two reasons we assume that he was a good father to Michel. One is the fact that he writes children’s stories for a living. How could such a person not be a good father to his own child? The other reason, of course, is the monumental nature of his grief upon the death of his son. Charles’s mission to find and punish his son’s killer itself appears to testify to his dedication as a parent. In truth, except for the home movie of himself and his son that we watch Charles watch after his son’s death, we never see the two alive together; and by their nature such home movies are idealized and idyllic—a performance of feeling rather than the realistic documents that they purport to be. For all we know, Charles wasn’t the engaged, dedicated father to Michel that we assume he must have been. The fact that he writes children’s stories proves nothing in the context of a film that later reveals that something else that Charles writes, his diary, is likely a lie and a ruse that is meant to be found and read (a document of reality, then, like the home movie—a performance). What about the all too plainly real grief we observe when Charles picks up his dead son off the street, holds him in his arms and carries him off? This could be the grief of someone who had been a good and doting father; it could also be grief that is tinged with, perhaps even driven by, guilt exposing the missed opportunity for his being a good father with which, by his son’s death, Charles now is left. As he prepares his mission to hunt down and kill Michel’s killer, Charles writes (we hear this and other diary entries as sad voiceover), “When I find him, I’ll look him in the eye and smile. I’ll make him deserve his death.” What if when he does finally look at the “beast [that] must die,” the unkind, even brutal father and husband that Paul turns out to be, that Charles is looking into a guilty mirror, confronting an image of himself as he now wishes with all his heart he had not been? In the context of such a possibility, his expressed wish to his housekeeper that she never mention “that”—Michel’s death—makes emotional sense; he feels guilty for his son’s death because he hadn’t been the father to Michel he should have been. Charles asks the housekeeper to use the present tense if she must speak about Michel; Charles’s psychological attempt to erase his son’s death might be speaking to his desire not to have missed the opportunity to prove himself as a good, loving father. Philippe gives Charles a new opportunity to prove himself as a father, and this requires the vilification of Paul. Could it be possible, then, that his mission doubly engages Charles as a grieving father’s mission of revenge and as a failed father’s attempt to expiate his guilt? The context of such ambiguity, or possible complexity, of motive refreshes the correspondencies established between Paul and Charles, and pressures the murder of one in the direction of the likely imminent suicide of the other, turning the two deaths of fathers into a kind of single, combinate symbolical act.
Even people who love Que la bête meure sometimes fault it for its narrative leaps, for instance, how Charles almost magically intuits that his son’s killer must be a garage owner (“a bit imaginary,” the police investigator calls Charles’s conjectures about the crime), and how coincidences lead to his identifying this killer. Yet these impossibilities and near-impossibilities suggest the extent to which Charles himself, author, is willing the narrative of his mission. On this level, reality reflects his desire as compensation for the overwhelming reality, out of his control, of Michel’s death. It is as though he were saying: “My son’s death is somebody else’s story at my son’s and my expense; but my mission to make it right is my story.” What does it mean that Paul turns out to be such a beast? It could mean that we are seeing Paul through the convenient prism of Charles’s grief and guilt. We are seeing Paul as Charles must see Paul in order to justify his plot against Paul. This possibility would help explain a baffling part of the film’s procedure that pokes us in the direction of probing and questioning the “givens” about the two characters. Charles is the “hero,” but he deceives Hélène, becoming her lover only to use her in order to find out who murdered his son (initially he suspects that she was the hit-and-run driver), and while we see Paul, the “villain,” shout “Shut up!” to her as he speeds away from the spot where his car has fatally hit Michel, we see Charles, in a fit of anger, assault and nearly strangle her. To be sure, Charles really does fall in love with Hélène, and this humanizes him, enlarging his capacity to love, which leads to the bond that grows between him and Philippe; but perhaps we have to admit that we like Paul, Charles’s opponent, to a surprising degree. He is given a robustness that contrasts with Charles’s paleness and spooky monomania. Paul may be cruel, but he seems alive, whereas the solemnity of his mission consigns Charles to the category of the living dead. Chabrol shows us Paul as Charles sees him, but his method also allows us to see around Charles’s narrow view of Paul. Not everything about “the villain” is cut-and-dried. The smack across the face that Philippe receives from his father resounds; it’s an awful moment. But I was surprised to discover that I had misremembered its motivation. Paul does not strike his son over a low grade but over Philippe’s flippant excuse for the low grade, the boy’s failure to accept responsibility for the low grade. However poorly and brutally, then, Paul is disciplining his son, not merely striking out at him, say, over the discredit that accrues to a father over his son’s doing poorly at school. I had simplified my recollection of the moment to fit it into Charles’s black-and-white view of Paul. The irony of the moment, of course, is that Paul, without realizing it, has taught Philippe to misbehave in this way by his own example; for it is Paul who is constantly acting irresponsibly by blaming others for his own fits of anger and violence. (“See what you made me do!”)
Of all Chabrol’s films, Que la bête meure is the most heart-piercing; it is the one that most purely emotionally wrecks us. As he sets out on his mission, Charles tells us: “I realize that my search is limitless. . . . I have all the time. I have all my life. . . .” Chabrol and co-scenarist Paul Gégauff know that the loss of a child is too overwhelming a matter to be reduced to a point of plot; their entire film investigates the depth of a parent’s emotions over such an event. Chabrol is not one to float such terrible loss and anguish along a crap-infested Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003), a film at the opposite end of the spectrum because it exploits the death of a teenaged daughter, trivializing it, in its pursuit of mawkish “entertainment.” Some artists have souls; some do not.
Color cinematographer Jean Rabier’s palette leans toward forlorn, misty, disquieting grays; he adds to these a frosty light. Chabrol’s actors are similarly helpful. Michel Duchaussoy gives the performance of his career as Charles; Jean Yanne is excellent as Paul; substituting for Stéphane Audran, Chabrol’s usual star and wife at the time, Caroline Cellier is marvelously sensitive as Hélène, who hides shame and is haunted—aren’t we all?—by the death of Michel.
* Under “film reviews,” please see my piece on Chabrol’s Les cousins elsewhere on this site.
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