Something co-written and directed by Jerzy Skolimowski that won the top prize at Berlin and stars Jean-Pierre Léaud ought to be my cup of whisky; and, indeed, The Departure, from Belgium, is just that. This dazzling, hilarious, and most tender slapstick comedy-adventure-romance reunites Léaud, who is at his most brilliant here, with charming Catherine Duport, his co-star from Jean-Luc Godard’s superlative Masculine-Feminine from the year before. Their new characters extend the previous ones for Godard; likewise about contemporary youth, Skolimowski’s film is something of a companion-piece to Godard’s. Its frenetic air and snappy pace may also remind one of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and The Knack (1965), although it is far superior to either of these British films. (Other stylistic influences may be Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, 1959, and Věra Chytilová’s Daisies, 1966.) Skolimowski, working for the first time outside his native Poland, conjures a breathtaking romp in Brussels—one all the more remarkable in that he did not understand French. What he grasped, though, were the sensitivities of sixties youth.
Léaud’s Marc is introduced by Skolimowski’s stoking our sacred memories of Léaud’s Antoine Doinel in François Truffaut’s tremendous The 400 Blows (1959), which launched Léaud’s career and his iconic participation in the spiritual apparatus of the nouvelle vague; Skolimowski has Léaud pull a sweater over his head, as we remember Antoine doing, and, still in a sequence before the opening credits, run like the wind to reach a pay phone to make an emergency call. (Léaud, in his twenties, is fit and slim and runs much faster than his chunky teenage incarnation.) Thereafter, Marc seems to be all about securing a 911-S Porsche for an upcoming race. (His enunciation of the “S” is priceless.) A sort of Walter Mitty, Marc is a hairdresser who dreams of rally racing. However, the film ends with no such race; we last find Marc, bless him, in a hotel room with Michèle (Duport)—the girl of his dreams rather than a dream of superficial road glory. Anyone who isn’t deeply touched, and haunted, by the end of this gracious film needs a tune-up.
Léaud, here, is not how we’re used to seeing him: this time out he smokes a cigar rather than an endless trail of cigarettes; he invites a bloody nose at work; at a bar, he stabs himself with a giant pin—a parody of Rod Steiger in Sidney Lumet’s god-awful The Pawnbroker (1965); he is in drag—a lovely nod on Skolimowski’s part to Howard Hawks, whose Cary Grant masquerades as a woman in I Was a Male War Bride (1949); and Léaud claims his most agile, athletic and two-fisted/rough ’n’ tumble role here, indoors and out. It’s not easy for a boy to get hold of a Porsche!
Every bit of this movie is sensational, including Marc’s zipping down highways in “borrowed” vehicles; but one set-piece is truly stupendous: an auto show that Marc and Michèle attend, remaining in the abandoned showroom after closing—if you will, the only two persons left on Earth. Hiding in a car boot, the two deepen their relationship—a lovely exchange of light slaps signals this—while they appear to occupy the limitless expanse of dark space: a more profoundly mysterious shot than anything in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and a fine anticipation of the boy-girl face-offs on an abandoned stage in Godard’s Le gai savoir (1968). The universe expands; Marc and Michèle now occupy the two front seats of another car in the deserted showroom. The car is perched, like a god, on a slowly rotating platform. As the platform turns, we see the couple pulled apart, each in the space of the other half of the car. As the platform turns, the two halves come together, bringing the couple together. This is the moment when boy-girl romance trumps Marc’s infatuation with cars. It is the miraculous moment for which Marc and Michèle were born for.
Another beautiful sequence, this one in the street, finds Marc and Michèle hand-delivering a large, exquisitely reflective mirror, from Marc’s place of employment, to a second-hand shop. The reflections of either carrier contribute to the subject of identity, much as does the wig that Marc earlier delivered to Michèle, briefly changing her from a blonde to a brunette. In particular, Marc’s mugging antics with the mirror emphasize his being “something else” to try to help determine precisely who or what he is.
I cannot tell you how dearly I love this film.
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