Tuesday, December 03, 2013

L'Inconnu dans la maison

A contribution to David Cairns' essential annual Late Movies Blogathon at Shadowplay.

Not everyone gets to go out on a high: Georges Lautner might be better suited to an Early Movies blogathon, with his most beloved work mostly at the beginning of his career. It's no great surprise that, a few stray bits of TV work aside, he took his leave from directing after L'Inconnu dans la maison flopped, notwithstanding the presence of Jean-Paul Belmondo: box office success aside, it's too middle of the road for a man who aspired to be an unpretentious creator of popular entertainment, and largely succeeded in that vein.

Belmondo wasn't, in any case, the draw he had once been -- not least when director and actor teamed up for several major hits in the early 1980s -- and had already embarked on his own rather extended wind-down in cinematic activity. He hadn't made a film for several years when this opportunity came along, and a good deal of his subsequent work has been overly self-referential, appearing as versions of himself or in gimmicky parts, like an appearance in the 2001 TV movie L'Ainé des Ferchaux where he took on the role that Charles Vanel played opposite a much younger Belmondo in 1963.

Truth be told, it's an odd project for both men. Lautner's best work is almost always semi-comic in tone, with a good deal more zip than we see here, whereas the humour here is both rare and pretty juvenile, of the stumbling drunk variety. The tongue-in-cheek aspect of Lautner's earlier police and spy parodies is key to their appeal, with the director keen to emphasize he's in it for the laughs, and always giving full rein to the sometimes terrific dialogue he had at his disposal (particularly during his extended collaboration with Michel Audiard). Though Belmondo, who gets virtually all of the half-decent dialogue here, delivers several of his speeches with real relish, particularly an extended meditation on drinking his way through an amply stocked wine cellar, the riper lines clash with the otherwise fairly straightforward procedural tone: they are very obviously lines against an often drab backdrop.

There's a similar incongruity to the idea of casting Belmondo in the first place.  He's supposed to be playing an aging, drunken ex-lawyer, mired in sorrow and drink since the suicide of his wife ten years earlier. It's not all that hard to credit the actor with a love of the bottle, since his face, which once looked like something out of a Cubist painting, is softening and bulging out here and there, but this son of a sculptor, probably born in the kind of milieu the film depicts, rarely convinces in lawyer's robes.

After all, from almost his first screen appearance in the late 1950s, we've learned to think of Belmondo as a man of action rather than one of fancy words -- rip-roaring Bebel, not some schlub stuck on a couch with his nose halfway down a bottle of Beaujolais. Lautner seems to sense this, too, for the character is ultimately re-written into the kind of go-get-'em role that Belmondo more usually played: the lawyer turns detective to solve the film's central mystery (onscreen, that is: offscreen, the big mystery is whether there's any concept of conflict of interest in the French justice system since the case involves the lawyer's own daughter and nephew, among others). While a minor player comments that the role of detective doesn't suit the lawyer, I'd voice a hearty objection -- Belmondo seems to be on much firmer ground here, and I wouldn't have found it at all surprising if his employed his fists, Inspecteur Lavardin-style, in the course of his investigation.

The whole thing is a reworking of a Simenon novel first filmed by Henri Decoin from a Clouzot script in 1942. I haven't seen the earlier film, which stars Raimu, in its entirety but those sequences I have found suggest a much more rancid tone, with Clouzot homing in on the story's possibilities to create another acid portrait of wartime small-town life (edit: I subsequently caught up with the original). Lautner's version reworks the focus so that the dissolute lawyer mostly obscures any portrait of local mores -- even the title, dropping an "s" from the original Les Inconnus dans la maison, makes the mystery within the house of considerably less psychological interest. While Lautner does pay lip service to current trends, with French gangster rap and drug culture making their appearances, the Clouzot-ish small town portrait is not his major interest as a filmmaker in any case: Chabrol might have been a better bet to take a contemporary look at the same material.

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