Thursday, July 24, 2008

Garde à vue

1981, France, directed by Claude Miller

Though Claude Miller's primary cinematic mentor was François Truffaut -- Miller even filmed one of Truffaut's scripts, for La Petite voleuse -- the director has clearly paid attention to the work of another nouvelle vague stalwart, Claude Chabrol, for he invests this potentially mechanical cat and mouse thriller with a chilling sense of dead-end provincial life. The film doesn't have quite the bite of Le Boucher or La Cérémonie, which showcase Chabrol's fine eye for the details of the French class structure, but it breathes some of the same air. Miller steadfastly refuses to sensationalise his material, preserving a spare tone when referring to the crimes that underpin the action.

The film is centered on a confrontation between a policeman (Lino Ventura, in one of his last really meaty roles) and a lawyer (Michel Serrault) who is the prime suspect in a series of murders. It's not entirely a face-off between the two leads, though: Guy Marchand has a nice part as Ventura's colleague, and Romy Schneider, in her penultimate film, makes a short but critical appearance as the lawyer's wife, giving her own version of the events that have led to her husband's extended interview.

Ventura and Serrault are well-matched, with Ventura playing the burly cop as a by-the-book kind of fellow though the actor was no stranger to rough-edged roles, some on the other side of the law entirely. Serrault, for his part, makes intelligent use of his own ambiguous sexuality, allowing the lawyer to appear alternately emasculated and potentially possessed of terrible demons (it's a much subtler performance than the one he gave in the Cage aux folles films around the same time). The film doesn't, ultimately, have quite the same sense of personal investment that Miller has brought to other projects, especially his wonderful first film, La Meilleure façon de marcher, but it's an effective guessing game with a stunning conclusion.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States