Sunday, August 21, 2016

Louis Malle | Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows)

the death of romance
by Douglas Messerli

Noël Calef, Louis Malle and Roger Nimier (writers), Louis Malle (director), Ascenseur pour l'échafaud  (Elevator to the Gallows) / 1958


Louis Malle’s wonderful first feature film, Elevator to the Gallows, is actually two movies in one. First, it is a tale of adultery and murder in the manner of Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity of 14 years earlier—although the later film is far more romantically engaged, I would argue, than Wilder’s more manipulative couple, who also murder for the money. In the Malle film,  moreover, the murderous couple is simply far more appealing (even though they never meet within the confines of the film itself); and, at moments, we root for them despite their transgressions, particularly when the murderer, Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) is accidentally trapped in an office elevator for the weekend; and the Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau)—the wife of the murdered capitalist—begins a frantic search for her missing lover. Indeed it is Florence’s desperate night-time street-walking, accompanied by improvised modal compositions that dominate the film, and creates the film’s sense of romantic moodiness.

      It’s clear, moreover, as Malle has explained, that this part of the film is grounded in his two favorite directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Bresson. As Malle himself notes in an interview with Philip French:

                   The irony is, I was really split between my tremendous
                   admiration for Bresson and the temptation to make a
                   Hitchcock-like film. So there’s something about Elevator
                   that goes from one to the other. 

     Particularly in the scenes in the elevator, where the former military hero, Tavernier attempts to find a way of escape, we are reminded of Bresson’s Un condamné à mort (Malle had worked with Bresson on that film)—while the street scenes, shot mostly with only the existing street light remind one us of a Hitchcock world somewhat akin to that of The Wrong Man, The Lodger, and even bits of Rebecca. So dark were Malle’s scenes that the studio executives originally demanded he reshoot them, despite their dreamy perfection.

      Yet Malle injects into these scenes something far more edgy than anything Hitchcock might have imagined, not only by using the remarkable jazz score—truly innovative, as Davis created the music to screen images in a single long night—but through the madness and purposelessness of Florence’s wanderings. If at first there’s something sinuous and sexy about Moreau’s stroll, it soon becomes a walk of a madwoman, with Florence muttering to herself, winding up with her  pointless and unpredictable, given the fact that  being arrested. And all this is made even more she, herself, has supposedly witnessed Julien driving off with another woman in his convertible earlier in the evening.

        These elements of the film gradually take it out of its film noir genre, and begin to push the movie in another direction that seems closer to the French New Wave. Moreover, the second, younger couple, who steals the murderer’s car and temporarily takes on the identities of Mr.  and Mrs. Tavernier before, finally, murdering a German couple in an outlying motel, reminds one of something right out of Godard. But, of course, Godard had not yet made Breathless or Band of Outsiders in 1957, when Malle was filming. Here, just as in Breathless everything seems gratuitous and unexpected. Like Belmondo and Seberg the young man, Louis (Georges Poujouly) and juvenile florist’s assistant, Véronique (Yori Bertin) seem wild and unhinged, moving without premeditation from one crime to another until, pretending a romantic ending, they determine to take their own lives—and yet even fail at that.
     Louis’ appropriation of Tavernier’s identity and silly bragging about his experiences in Algeria demonstrate his own lack of self and his fears for his future. His murdering of the German couple, more importantly, seems entirely without purpose, except perhaps for the Benckers’ recognition that he and Véronique are youthful frauds. 
     On the other hand, symbolically, the murder of the Benckers makes all the sense in the world, for, in shooting them, Louis is killing off the past.
     This second film within the film, accordingly, seems more like a Nouvelle Vague movie than many of the films of Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol, and Rivette after it. Malle, as he himself explains, did not like joining groups, and he was never a reviewer for or associated with the French film magazine, Cahiers du cinema, home to most of the group’s filmmakers. Moreover, few of his other films, except perhaps for Zazie dans le Métro,  represent such an abandonment of logic (although one could surely point to his earlier student movie Crazéologie of 1954, based on the French Absurdist theater). And even Malle’s younger brother Vincent admits Malle was, in many ways, connected to the New Wave.
     In Elevator to the Gallows, however, it seems more apparent, over time, that the two elements of this film are purposely in conflict with each other. If the murderous lovers kill to allow themselves a new future, the second pair of murderers are trying, as I note above, to destroy the past. Yet we all know that fate will not permit the older couple to relive their lives, and as the film ends, both realize that, as Florence says, they will be given “no more ageing,”
  that their past acts have terminated their futures. If Louis and Véronique are given similar prison sentences (in the strangely chauvinist French logic, Tavernier will get only 10 years for the actual murder, while Florence will probably serve 20, neither of them, despite the US title, going to the gallows), the younger couple can perhaps truly begin new lives after. If Louis can convince the jury, moreover, that his own life was threatened (the German was pointing what looked like a gun at him), perhaps he and his girlfriend might even get off with lighter sentences. And, in that sense, youth, in this movie, have truly killed off the old and its notions  
of romance. Indeed, the pictures from Julien and Florence’s romance (remaining on Tavernier’s mini-camera) determine their guilt.
      Throughout the film, as critics such as Terrence Rafferty (and even Malle himself) have noted, the director goes out of his way to show a city that, if not futuristic, is at least modern—unlike most of the real Paris we all know and love. The moderne motel was so different from anything Paris had to offer that Malle and his crew had to travel to Normandy to film those scenes. Clearly in this 24 year-old director’s vision, the new inevitably wins out over the old, unpredictability over the predictable film tropes; mightn’t one even add, perhaps, Bresson wins out over Hitchcock?

Los Angeles, August 21, 2016

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