One of the most electrifying thrillers ever made, Louis Malle’s first film, Elevator to the Gallows (Lift to the Scaffold; Frantic), opened up to me recently, revealing a depth of concerns that, during five or six previous viewings, had somehow been lost to my too-often-too-complacent head. Why I missed so much probably owes something to the facts that I didn’t much care for Malle, who was born to wealth and was a descendant of French nobility, and that I don’t like much of his work. It isn’t the unexpected films I most mind, for example, the strained surrealist experiment of Black Moon (1975); what artist isn’t entitled to go off the deep end every now and then? It’s the romantic garbage of The Lovers (1959), whose sickening “lyricism” deprives the bodies of the adulterous couple of all sense of flesh and blood, and the cheapness of too much of Au revoir, les enfants (1987). About the latter I have many complaints. I reject films about the Holocaust that sentimentalize the event. The Holocaust was too horrible and tragic in its reality to require some clever filmmaker going about engaging our bleeding hearts over it, in this case, in particular for a Jewish child being sheltered from the Nazis and French sympathizers in a Church-run school during World War II. The actual event presumably from Malle’s own childhood—some have suggested that Malle exaggerated the personal connection—dictates that it isn’t the vicious nun who turns the Jewish boy in to the authorities but a poor youth working in the kitchen. But Malle is himself responsible for manipulating us by treating this aspect of the material as a “whodunit.” He should have disclosed the identity of the culprit immediately, for the delay implies, “Oh, you didn’t suspect how rotten the working class can be, did you?” (When Malle’s prejudices collide with my own, I cling to my own harder than ever!) But, most of all, I resent the visual treatment of the child. Children are of course beautiful, and Jewish children (precisely because of the Holocaust) perhaps a little more so; but nothing justifies the dawdling infatuation of Malle’s camera with the boy’s physical beauty here, shot after shot after shot—not to mention the inadvertent implication that a less attractive Jewish child perhaps would have been less worthy of being spared. I know that Malle’s intentions are benign; but for the artist as well as the non-artist the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Malle wants to convey how priceless this Jewish boy is, and by holding on to the character with his camera in this way he sets us up for the closing heartbreak when the boy (along with the other Jewish children the school was hiding) is carted away and Malle himself has to let the boy go. (Malle’s poignant voiceover at the end stresses the lingering memory that makes doubly hard letting the actual boy go.) This “set-up,” though, is rank manipulation; but far worse is the objectification of the boy that (contrary to his intent) accumulates from Malle’s endless sighing with his camera over the boy’s good looks. The objectification of humanity: this was the psychological mechanism that in fact helped enable the Holocaust (not to mention Europe’s current revival of knee-jerk anti-Semitism)—and this is what Malle himself achieves, visually, with the boy, an irony that escaped Malle, whose own death by cancer in 1995, however, stills all quarrel between us. Why should he and I quarrel? The great set-piece of Au revoir, les enfants—it’s the most magnificent stuff Malle ever shot—ennobles the film, after all, even as other elements cheapen it: a school game, a hunt for buried treasure in the surrounding landscape, that encapsulates beautifully the vulnerability of childhood. Malle did some things very well, very right.
His best film may be Le feu follet (1963), from the novel by Drieu la Rochelle. By closely following a suicide through the commission of the ultimate act, this exceptionally alert film delivers a rebuke to all those films that have dragged in somebody’s suicide as a contrived and convenient way not to work out a script to completion or to whack dishonestly the viewer’s heart with a purely sentimental bad surprise. The suicide in The Fire Within is neither convenient nor gratuitious; it is the focus and culmination of the piece. Moreover, it immensely helps that the central character, Alain, is enacted by Maurice Ronet in one of the most brilliant performances in cinema. A prolific actor of great intelligence and versatility, Ronet—the tall, skinny kid in Jacques Becker’s Rendez-vous de juillet (1949)—also succumbed to cancer, but sooner, in 1983 at age 55. One presumes that Anthony Minghella, had Ronet still been alive, would not have committed the unconscionable act of directing Jude Law to copy Ronet’s wonderful performance in René Clément’s Plein soleil (1959) for their dreadful, barely watchable remake, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). (Not that Clément’s film, though far better, is much good, either.) Ronet, the star of both, in fact connects Malle’s two best films, Elevator to the Gallows and The Fire Within—as does something else: the action in both films is restricted to 24 hours. (“ . . . [L]ike a Racine tragedy,” a character notes in Elevator.) These are the last 24 hours of Alain’s life in the later film; in Elevator, Ronet’s Julien Tavernier commits a murder and is apprehended by the police all within 24 hours. However, it is Tavernier’s accomplice, the murder victim’s wife and Tavernier’s mistress, who is more likely to be guillotined as the criminal mastermind. Tavernier, you see, has a military background in a nation intoxicated by the military mystique. The police captain predicts ten years in prison for the killer.
The man Tavernier murders is his employer, Simon Carala, a wealthy industrialist whose precise allegiance in the Second World War, during France’s partial Occupation, remains murky. Tavernier himself is a war hero, a former parachutist now compromised or now delivering poetic justice, depending on your point of view, because he is pointing Carala’s own gun at him—the murder is to look like a suicide—after business hours in the inner sanctum of Carala’s office. Carala’s last words fortify our sense of allegiance to Tavernier: “What is this, a joke? What do you want? Money? I’m not frightened of you, Tavernier. I’m too used to being unpopular to be frightened. Anyhow, you’re not so foolish as to shoot. In war, yes, but not in more important things.” Monsieur Carala is, then, an odious man, and Tavernier’s pointed response makes the young, slender hero shine by comparison: “Don’t laugh at wars. You live off wars. . . . Indo-China; now Algeria. Respect wars; they’re your family heirlooms.” Julien is killing Carala because he is in love with the old man’s young wife, Florence; but his political remarks add to our understanding of the disgust with which Carala fills him. Because Tavernier is Carala’s employee, his disgust includes a measure of self-disgust—the subtle revelation of which is an index of Ronet’s superb acting.
You know what the Scottish poet Robert Burns said about “the best-laid schemes” in “To a Mouse.” Julien and Florence’s murder plan, for which Florence supplied her husband’s gun, goes awry. Tavernier cannot get to his car, parked right outside, in order to meet up with Florence because he gets trapped in the business building’s descending elevator. Meanwhile, two kids in love, Louis and Veronica, steal Tavernier’s car. Spotting the car and the passenger, the girl (the two female characters are linked; Veronica is a florist), Florence worries that Julien has betrayed her and run off with this younger companion. At a motel, Louis assumes Tavernier’s identity (it goes with the car, if you will), pretending to have been a soldier, and ends up shooting to death two German tourists, using Julien’s gun from the automobile’s glove compartment. (Unbeknownst to him, Louis the night before repeated to the German some of Tavernier’s language to Carala: “My generation has other things [than champagne] to worry about: four years of occupation, Indo-China, Algeria.”) The children now attempt a joint suicide, which they bungle before being tracked down by Florence, determined to exonerate her missing lover of the motel double murder. The revelation of this crime, alas, leads to the revelation of the other one, the murder of Simon Carala. (Five years earlier Georges Poujouly, who plays Louis, was dear 11-year-old Michel in Clément’s Jeux inderdits. In 2000, Poujouly also died of cancer.)
What I never grasped (not even partially), but do grasp now, is the precise thematic relationship between Julien and “Julien,” the real Julien Tavernier and his impersonator, the teenaged boy, Louis. I had never even given this aspect of the film a thought, but something that has recently happened in the United States has crystallized it for me and, in the process, disclosed the film’s thematic integrity, moving it from the category of classy entertainment to the category of intellectual art. Television personality and news anchor Tom Brokaw, in a series of books, has (largely for the purpose of selling those books) promoted the idea that America’s World War II combatants constitute America’s “greatest generation”—a designation that others have signed on to, particularly those upset with what they feel that Bill Clinton’s moral conduct expresses about those who were teenagers in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Unfortunately, the fallout from this elevation of one generation of Americans over others imposes a burden of expectation on the current crop of youngsters, who (though they aren’t the ones reading Brokaw’s and other similar books) are being asked to find suitable inspiring models in the self-sacrificing, heroic behavior of these now aging or dead soldiers. The rationalization is this: The whole nation pulled together during the Second World War in order to defeat the Germans and the Japanese; we also need now to pull together, to become a focused, single nation again. Brokaw’s position (as well he knows) is incapable of separating mythmaking from historical truth, and it disadvantages too many generations of Americans, past and present, for the cause of promoting just one generation. It’s silly. But Brokaw’s mission has illuminated what I missed before about Malle’s film: just as Julien is living in the shadow of his Second World War experience (his job as an industrialist’s lackey is degrading after that experience), Louis is also living in that shadow. Too young to have fought in the war, he now envies the likes of Julien who were able to prove themselves in the war in a nationally recognized way. Louis is defeated by the comparison between himself and Julien. To counteract this imaginatively, he steals Julien’s car and adopts Julien’s identity. In his unconscious, he even becomes a Second World Warrior by dispatching two Germans on French soil—with the real Julien’s pistol, no less. Another angle on the same theme may be expressed in this way: While the war finds Julien unable to stop killing (the war made murder possible for him), Louis’s exclusion from war finds him having to start killing. Unifying the film, both the boy and the barely-more-than-boy are homicidally directed in peacetime by the experience of war.
Malle’s filmmaking, his first time out, is masterful. The cross-cutting among the children’s auto theft, Florence’s agonized search for her lover, and Julien’s claustrophobic elevator entrapment and attempts to extricate himself from it is far more assured than anything from Griffith or Coppola. In one lovely shot, as Julien, freshly escaped from his entrapment, sits outdoors at a café, the camera dollies back as we hear the sound of a police siren; the camera stops cold when the police car has entered the frame, with Julien remaining visible in the background. (Worthy of Hitchcock, this shot!) However, doubtless the most celebrated passage of the film is Florence’s nighttime search, an early anticipation of the mist-enshrouded hunt in Au revoir, les enfants. (It might also have influenced Michelangelo Antonioni, whose La notte, 1961, would have the camera following the same peripatetic actress who plays Florence.) We hear Florence’s heartrending voiceover—“Julien, I looked everywhere for you”—while her walking, passing back and forth between purposeful mission and emotional wandering—in and out of utter darkness and streetlighted darkness: a visual metaphor disclosing that she also, through spouse and lover both, exists in the shadow of war, including her nation’s shameful Occupation.
Jeanne Moreau, cinema’s greatest post-Garbo actress, plays Florence, and, the film’s highest asset, her performance is tremendously moving. Hers is one of the most profound and many-faceted expressions of love in cinema. In a visually stunning piece of irony that sums up all that has gone wrong in the execution of what was meant to be the perfect crime, Florence is left with only photographs of her great love affair: fragments longing for wholeness, a living death desirous of being reconstituted as genuine life. Moreau has keyed her performance to this finish; throughout, she essays Florence’s spiritual dissolution, an event (falsely) interrupted by her determination to prove her lover’s innocence: another irony, for her exoneration of him for one crime helps seal his guilt for another. It is remarkable how successful Malle is at riveting our sympathy to Julien and Florence, and Moreau’s rapturous femininity and irresistible vulnerability are largely responsible for this outcome. One gesture in particular haunts: during her melancholy wandering, Florence shakes her head while thinking, or silently speaking to herself. Moreau’s stunned expression, its quality of basso profundo, combined with the brief headshaking, correlates a kind of physical sleepwalking to the mental traversing of agonized territory. What an amazing actress!
Two other outstanding contributors to the film merit notice. Henri Decaë’s moody black-and-white cinematography, especially in following Florence at night, is hypnotic. (Decaë also cinematographed, in black-and-white, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le silence de la mer, Les enfants terribles, Bob le flambeur and Léon Morin, Prêtre, Claude Chabrol’s Le beau serge, Les cousins and Les bonnes femmes, and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and, in color, Clément’s Plein soleil and, with Jean Charvein, Melville’s Le samourai: a record of exceptional work.) Too, Malle’s film boasts an unforgettable score by Miles Davis, who, like so many African-American jazz musicians, found more hospitality in France than at home.
Malle. Now with my deepened appreciation of Elevator to the Gallows, I no longer can credit Malle with just one good fictional film, Le feu follet. Goodness knows, I never wish to be close again to the likes of Pretty Baby (1978) or Atlantic City (1981), and even Murmur of the Heart, Malle’s lovely comedy of a boy’s growing up with the help of a little maternal incest, doesn’t seem as fresh as it did in 1971. But it may be time for me to reevaluate the filmmaker. I am in fact on the verge of a chance to do so: I have never seen Malle’s Thief of Paris (1967), starring Belmondo, but a friend has videotaped it off of cable TV. I cannot wait.*
* The wait is over, and Le voleur (The Thief) is magnificent. It’s Malle’s finest achievement, a droll, profound consideration of a turbulent Europe at the turn of the century: a reflection of a newly unsettled Paris in the 1960s. Jean-Paul Belmondo plays Georges Randal, a young, nimble thief once his guardian, his uncle, has lost or stolen his inheritance. (“Who knew the Bank of Europe would collapse?” the old man asks.) Randal, an inadvertent avenging angel of justice against the bond- and jewel-hording bourgeoisie, is shown committing his criminal work, with flashbacks filling in a portrait of an embittered, dangerous and lonely existence amidst slowly strengthening forces of socialism and anarchy in response to pervasive socioeconomic inequity in Paris and Brussels, by extension, Europe. Belmondo, a sometimes terrific actor (Godard’s A bout de souffle and Pierrot le fou, Melville’s Leon Morin, Priest and Le doulos), once again combining wryness and volatility, is at his most brilliant here; certified by a mustache, his is a character role that engages the most incisive aspects of his remarkable range of abilities. The closing shot of Belmondo in Le voleur is comparable in force to the closing shot of Jean-Pierre Léaud in Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.
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