After burying myself in Patricia Highsmith adaptations for a couple of weeks, it was quite refreshing to switch to this little gem of a Georges Simenon adaptation. The Blue Room stars Mathieu Almaric and he directs the film himself. The film is only 75 minutes long but none of the time is wasted.
Julien (Mathieu Almaric) is the owner of a business selling and renting out agricultural equipment in Central France. He has an attractive modern house, a beautiful wife and child but he has met again the girl he desired at school. She is now helping to run a pharmacy in a nearby town and she has an older husband who is ailing. She is very much up for an affair and the couple meet for afternoons together in a local hotel with a ‘Blue Room’ that becomes their regular site for passion.
The film is presented as a sequence of short scenes with ellipses. It reminded me somehow of Chris Marker’s La jetée (France 1962) – which is a narrative made up of still images. The story is narrated via flashbacks – Julien’s memories – and through the questioning by the local examining magistrate and a prison psychologist after a crime has been committed. Finally, there is a court scene in a traditional small town courtroom with locals crammed in to witness events. Much of the interest in the film is in its formal precision. The aspect ratio is Academy 1.37:1 and Almaric explains the reasons for this in the film’s Press Notes. This choice seems to be becoming more common. For me, it worked as this is a ‘chamber film’ with a clear sense of entrapment and the squarish ‘enclosed’ screen space seemed appropriate. Almaric says that the panoramic feel of widescreen would have created something different. The other two factors are the use of carefully chosen musical scoring from Grégoire Hetzel and photography that depends on many quite static shots composed by Christophe Beaucarne.
This kind of film defeats some conventional perspectives. I’ve seen it described as an ‘erotic thriller’. IMDb lists the various classifications in different territories. In the US, the MPAA has it as ‘R’, presumably because there is some full-frontal nudity (‘graphic nudity’!). In the UK, the BBFC has it as a ’15’ . In Germany it is ’12’ and in France it is for ‘Tous publics’. The film isn’t directly ‘erotic’ and the nudity is post-coital – I’m not sure it is a ‘thriller’ either, although there is one scene that might make you jump. What is transgressive is that the nude bodies are presented in a realist way. It’s a hot day. Sex has made the lovers sweat, there may be semen and there is certainly the drama of a spot of blood dropped on a white towel – a lip has been bitten in the heat of passion. Any eroticism is really in the mind, in the thrill of the secrecy of an affair and in the woman’s open desire – and the man’s acquiescence. Esther is played by Stéphanie Cléau who is also credited as co-writer of the film. She is physically taller than Julien and also more confident and assured in herself. I don’t think she is a type as such, even though we learn little about her – and what we do know comes from Julien’s memories. (I say this because some US reviews refer to ‘similar’ Hollywood genre movies which I think work quite differently.) Stéphanie Cléau is not a film actor. Her experience is in theatre as a writer and indeed there is something compellingly different about her brave performance. Almaric says that since Julien’s wife Delphine is played by an actor (Léa Drucker), it was important that Esther wasn’t a ‘known face’ because then it would be a contest between two actors. Esther is the initiator of the way the affair moves – Julien is in some ways the ‘willing victim’. All three leads are excellent.
On one level this is the story of how an affair can destroy a marriage, mapped out in the clinical investigations by a magistrate and a psychologist in prison. On a second level it is a cinephile’s treat, a delirious mix of influences and connections. Simenon’s novel comes from the early 1960s and it is a familiar story he had honed over many years. He’s been adapted many times and Amalric tells of how he acquired the rights at a time when he had a gap in projects and the chance to make a chamber piece in a short time. The most obvious lineage for the ideas in the film is from Simenon to Chabrol via Hitchcock. There is that same sense of a bourgeois affair, especially in small-town France. Rather than a thriller though, it is like a mystery – a ‘whydunit’. We get strong clues to how one crime might have been committed but we aren’t sure how another might have happened. Even more of a mystery/intrigue is why Julien would stray from his wife and child. In the most memorable line from the film, Julien reflects, “Life is different when you live it and when you go back over it after”. The trailer below offers a good sense of the formal qualities of the film. I’m struck again by the power of the music to suggest or perhaps to question emotions. Amongst a string of influences (Preminger, Fritz Lang) Almaric and Hetzel have created a blend of Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann with Truffaut’s use of Georges Delerue in La femme d’à côté (1974).
This is a film to watch and re-watch. In the UK the film has been in a handful of cinemas (Picturehouses claims it provided one of their busiest ‘Discovery Tuesday’ audiences) and is also available on VOD.
The film’s trailer (in the correct ratio – the US trailers falsely represent the film)
This extraordinary film is an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s third novel The Blunderer published in 1954 in between The Price of Salt (that later became Carol) and The Talented Mr. Ripley. The French title means ‘The Murderer’ – I’ve also shown the English, Italian and German titles in this post. As far as I can see, the film follows the novel fairly closely – shifting the action to the area around Nice in the Alpes-Maritimes region of France, but keeping the names of the characters. I confess that I was quite surprised that the behaviour of the characters in the film was indeed based on Highsmith’s characters – but then I shouldn’t be surprised. The film’s narrative is actually very recognisably ‘Highsmith’, but the presentation is definitely odd.
In outline we have the familiar Highsmith model – two men linked in some strange way, involving murder and with the female characters mainly functional rather than ‘active’. The wonderfully named Melchior Kimmel is a bookseller who one night murders his wife after arranging an alibi. An architect, Walter Saccard, is trapped in what he feels to be a painful marriage and is chasing a young music student. He reads about the murder of Kimmel’s wife in Nice Matin and decides to visit the bookshop. Later he investigates Kimmel’s alibi and sets in motion the extraordinary incidents that will tie the two men together. The third crucial (male) figure in the narrative is a deranged police detective, Corbi – the like of which I’ve rarely seen before. Highsmith certainly doesn’t do police procedurals! I won’t spoil the narrative any more if you want to read the novel.
Co-productions were common in France in the early 1960s, especially with Italy and Germany. (In 1963 there were 36 ‘French’ productions and 105 ‘co-productions’ listed for the French film industry –Encyclopedia of European Cinema, ed Ginette Vincendeau, Cassell/BFI 1995.) In this case, the co-production was presumably a factor in the casting of Gert Froebe as Kimmel. Others in the audience expressed the view that Froebe was dubbed (he swears in German several times) and that Yvonne Furneaux (who had been at Oxford and worked in the UK film industry) was also dubbed as Saccard’s wife Clara. My poor ear for French couldn’t distinguish if this was the case – much of the dialogue seemed to be shouted anyway! The important production issue is really that this is an example of what François Truffaut famously dismissed as ‘le cinéma de papa’. Le meurtrier was scripted by the team of Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost, Truffaut’s main villains, and directed by Claude Autant-Lara, a director he put in the same category. Truffaut wasn’t alone. Most of the critics on Cahiers du cinéma loathed directors like Autant-Lara. Jacques Rivette in 1957:
I think that Autant-Lara, Clément and Clouzot are all sickening . . . people who have been corrupted. (quoted in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s, ed Jim Hillier BFI, 1985: 39)
Rivette was arguing that Autant-Lara and the others were simply interested in making money and that they would refuse to work ‘on the street’ like Rossellini, making ‘social films’. This perspective needs to be placed carefully in context. Like much of the Cahiers polemic there are many issues to be aware of. Truffaut’s charge was that the ‘cinema of old men’ was too attached to literary sources, that it relied on tight scripts and studio sets and that it peddled a form of middle-brow entertainment with little artistic expression. Truffaut himself used similar kinds of ‘literary texts’ early in his career, ranging from literary novels to Série Noire thrillers and his true cinematic auteur, Alfred Hitchcock, had already adapted Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train in 1951. By 1963 when Le meurtrier appeared, Truffaut’s charge had lost much of its impact following René Clément’s Highsmith adaptation Plein soleil, released in 1960. Clément was another of the ‘old guard’ but his version of The Talented Mr. Ripley was in glorious colour, had a great Nino Rota score, camerawork by Henri Decaë (who photographed Truffaut’s 400 Blows) and outstanding performances by a young Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. In fact it has been claimed to be Highsmith’s favourite of the adaptations of her work (she died in 1995). Seeing it today Plein soleil looks as fresh, youthful and exciting as anything from La nouvelle vague. But is this true of Le meurtrier?
Much of Le meurtrier is shot on location around Nice and these scenes feel ‘modern’, but the interiors are shot at the Victorine Studio in Nice and these aspects do feel quite old-fashioned. The reality is that Autant-Lara and his collaborators were indeed ‘old men’ as seen by Truffaut. The director was nearing 60, the writers were roughly the same age or older. Many of the others in the creative team were born before 1914. This doesn’t make them poor filmmakers but it does help to explain part of the animosity of young critics who wanted themselves to be young filmmakers. Two other bits of trivia may or may not be interesting. The shoot included two couples. Marina Vlady (who plays Ellie, the music student) had been married young to Robert Hossein who plays the deranged detective. They had already split up by 1959. Later Vlady would become known as the central ‘character’ in Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her (France 1967). Yvonne Furneaux married the director of photography on the film Jacques Watteau in 1962 – before or during the shoot. Maurice Ronet is the real star of the film and he seems to have been happy to appear in the films of the ‘old guard’ and those of the New Wave filmmakers.
I don’t think all this background necessarily ‘explains’ why the films feels so ‘odd’ but it helps. I was certainly ‘entertained’ by the film, even if I found some scenes to be quite poorly executed. Highsmith’s narratives are often dependent on very unexpected behaviour by characters and by coincidences accidents that might be expected in melodramas. In the other adaptations these are acceptable and perhaps hardly noticed because of the performances and the maintenance of a tone that accommodates the violence and the black comedy. I wasn’t sure that was the case in Le meurtrier. Sometimes it was impossible to ‘suspend disbelief’. Who, it might be asked is ‘The Blunderer’ of the title? It could conceivably be any of the three leading male characters. Kimmel is overweight and very shortsighted (his glasses remind us of Strangers on a Train). Saccard lies very badly and makes a string of mistakes in what he does and how he talks to the detective – and the detective himself is just extraordinary. The music score has been interpreted as an attempt at the kind of scoring used by Hitchcock, especially with Herrmann. I didn’t think it worked and it only made it more difficult for me to work out what kind of film this was.
I understand that Keith Withall is going to write something about the overall technical aspects of the prints in this season. In this case, we had been ‘warned’ that the DCP had been created from a worn 35mm print and that we might expect scratches. These turned out to be very minor. There were two issues for me. The print was quite soft and faded – as if there was a lack of contrast in the black and white images. This meant that several interior scenes which appeared to have been lit/designed to create film noir images were instead simply grey or murky. The second issue was that the presentation was supposed to be 2.35:1 as the film was shot on ‘Franscope’. To my eye, although it looked like a ‘Scope shape, the image was squashed vertically so that the characters were slightly flattened and ‘fattened’. Gert Froebe became even more immense, but so did Maurice Ronet and Marina Vlady, the ‘glamorous couple’. I’m not sure how this could have happened and it could have been an issue about projector settings and the DCP as much as with the transfer from film. Finally, as with the two previous screenings, the mono sound seemed ‘bright’ and ‘harsh’. These niggles aside, however, I’m grateful to have had the chance to see this example of mainstream French cinema of the early 1960s.
For details of the ‘Adapting Miss Highsmith’ Season go to the website.
My second Patricia Highsmith adaptation in the touring film season was The Glass Cell at HOME in Manchester. This time it looked to be a DCP from an old video copy. The image was degraded but the subtitles were pristine digital and the sound was the same loud and ‘over bright’ mono as at the Hyde Park in Leeds in Deep Water (France 1981). The image didn’t really do justice to the work of cinematographer Robby Müller and, as with editor Peter Przygodda, this was his second Highsmith adaptation in a row, following Wim Wenders’ Der Amerikanische Freund (1977), based on the novel Ripley’s Game (1974). The Wenders connection is also carried through in the shape of director Hans W. Geissendörfer who was a founder member of the Filmverlag der Autoren which produced or distributed many of the films of the ‘New German Cinema’. The Glass Cell is a more ‘popular’/conventional film than most of the New German Cinema films, but it is still a film that deserves attention. The ‘production supervisor’ on the film was Bernd Eichinger, one of the most important figures in German cinema from the mid-1970s up until his death in 2011. The three leading players were all well-known in European cinema. Both Helmut Griem and Dieter Laser were leading German players with international production experience and Brigitte Fossey was borrowed from French cinema.
The film’s plot is familiar and very much what we might expect from Highsmith (it’s an adaptation of a 1964 Highsmith novel with the same title) – it even includes the train which brings Phillip Braun (Helmut Griem) back to Frankfurt after a five-year prison sentence for causing death and injury through shoddy work as an architect on a building project. Quickly explained in an expressionist flashback in the first few minutes of the film, this is quite difficult to grasp in terms of detail and I’m not sure that the subtitles explain enough about the legal questions. Phillip is still convinced that he was set up by Lasky (Walter Kohut) the crooked accountant/speculator on the building project. Somehow, a large sum of money is missing and the assumption is that Phillip has taken it and used cheap and unsafe substitute materials. During his nearly five years ‘inside’ Phillip has suffered mentally and also seems to have lost something of his status as husband and father with his wife Lisa (Brigitte Fossey) and his son Timmie, both of whom seeming to have fallen for the slick lawyer David Reinalt (Dieter Laser) – who was supposedly Phillip’s top legal counsel in his defence. Reinalt still maintains that Lasky is behind all Phillip’s problems. He tries to help Phillip find a job, but also seems to be overly supportive of Lisa and Timmie.
As in Deep Water, Highsmith’s story is about a faltering marriage in which the husband is prompted to take drastic action. In this case, however, there is a more acute police presence placing the criminals in jeopardy. I won’t spoil the narrative pleasure, but I found the resolution of the narrative curiously satisfying. There are several recurring Highsmith tropes and direct similarities with Deep Water. Once again there is a bright child of the marriage – Timmie plays the flute and he gives a performance attended by his parents. There is a party where Phillip loses control. As in Der Amerikanische Freund, one of the marriage partners is engaged in art work. Lisa decorates pots and she works in a bookshop. There is mileage in the possibility of an expressive mise en scène based around artworks but because of the murky print it was difficult to see much detail. The whole film is dark and brooding (underlined by the soundtrack early on) but whether deliberate or a function of the degraded image, I can’t be sure. The main action is set in mid-winter so the darkness is realistic. In his notes on the touring season’s website, Pasquale Iannone praises Müller’s streetscapes and there is indeed a deep sense of gloom and despair in Helmut Griem’s walks through the city. As Iannone also points out, the adaptation changes the novel by focusing much more on the ‘post prison’ events, but heightens our understanding of Phillip’s internal anguish by having the letters to him in prison from Lisa read out on the soundtrack. The violent action in the narrative is well-handled and one scene in particular in a raucous beer hall is very effective. Other scenes in apartment blocks feel Hitchcockian in chance encounters with potential witnesses – a nice bit of play with a dog in a lift.
I enjoyed the film despite the image quality and, as in Deep Water, the real pleasure came from the performances and the direction. Helmut Griem as the central character is excellent with a look of utter calm that suggests both coldness and possibility of despair. Brigitte Fossey is equally compelling. I’m definitely going to try to see more of the films in this season. The Glass Cell was a West German entry for Best Foreign Language film in the 1979 Academy Awards. There are four more films in the season coming to HOME and also more screenings at the Hyde Park in Leeds, Showroom, Sheffield and Rio, Dalston and other venues. Please support this excellent season.
Here is a good example of what can happen when a respected European director, who appreciates aspects of American culture, makes an American film that is dumped onto DVD by its (independent) US distributor and castigated by fans of US genre films. What’s worse in this case is that the film is an adaptation of one of the best books by a celebrated American writer of genre fiction and that the film features a stellar cast. It’s hard not to feel that a lot of people are not getting the respect they deserve because there are far too many ‘tunnel vision’ Hollywood fans out there. On the other hand, the distributor may have been right to foresee problems – but why did they put up money to help finance the film and agree to a distribution deal then? It’s likely that the film would have done better in a French language version. In fact, I don’t know if it was dubbed in France – where most of the tickets were sold.
In the Electric Mist is an adaptation of James Lee Burke’s novel In the Electric Mist with Confederate Dead, first published in 1993. It is the sixth story about Louisiana police detective Dave Robicheaux. The novel series has recently seen its twentieth entry (and these are not short novels). Shooting began in 2007 and updating the story to a post-Katrina world was just one of the changes to the novel made by co-writers Jerzy Kromolowski & Mary Olson-Kromolowski. Bertrand Tavernier initiated the project for his own company, Little Bear, with the American producer Michael Fitzgerald and the backing of the French TV channel TFI. Tavernier directed the film himself and it was shot by Bruno de Keyzer. Tavernier is one of the most ‘outward-looking’ of auteurs in France. He is one of the few French filmmaker-critics to have had kind words for British Cinema and he has made films in both the UK (Death Watch 1980) and the US (Mississippi Blues 1983) earlier in his career. He has a previous US crime fiction adaptation to his credit with Coup de torchon (France 1981), a successful film based on Jim Thompson’s notorious 1964 novel Pop. 1280.
There are two real issues at stake in the reception of In the Electric Mist in the US (and UK). The first concerns James Lee Burke and the second the US audience’s take on Tavernier’s approach. As I’ve indicated Burke is a prolific and celebrated writer. His website is unusually commercial for a writer (it offers ‘JLB’ merchandising!) but also presents his array of publications. As well as the 20 Robicheaux novels there are 9 novels about characters in the Holland family of lawyers and Texas Rangers and a further 5 ‘standalone’ novels plus collections of short stories. Over the years I’ve read many of the novels and I recently read The Wayfaring Stranger (2014), one of the ‘Holland Family’ stories set in the late 1940s. I enjoyed it very much and it was this reading that sent me back to thinking about In the Electric Mist. Burke’s strengths are his detailed descriptions of a range of memorable characters, his deep knowledge of the history of communities in Louisiana, Texas and now Montana and his commitment to what in the US are seen as ‘liberal views’. Each of Burke’s protagonists are ‘decent’ men with fatal flaws (often involving alcohol and a disregard for ‘proper’ procedures). All these protagonists seem to have had colourful childhoods and to be steeped in those community histories with strong commitment to forms of natural justice – i.e. against bigots, racists, fascists etc. – usually driving the narrative. The US book-buying public is large enough to allow Burke to have developed a significant readership who agree with (or at least tolerate) his politics. But what about the cinema audience? IMDB has comments by some of the right-wing trolls that Burke must recognise he attracts. More of a problem for me is that most of the narratives have a very familiar structure as well as familiar characters. Burke’s heroes often know the villains because they grew up with them. And they are also vulnerable because the villain invariably attacks/abducts the hero’s partner/children/parents etc. I can enjoy the novels as long as I have a big gap between reading them. Even so, like many others, I think they are all filmable and I’m surprised there haven’t been more adaptations. The only others I’m aware of are the 1996 Heaven’s Prisoners with Alec Baldwin as Robicheaux and a TV film of Two for Texas (1998) with Kris Kristofferson, a historical narrative featuring one of the Holland family. (There is also a 2015 short film based on a Burke short story, Winter Light.)
The relative lack of adaptations must have meant some anticipation for In the Electric Mist. Tavernier took a great deal of care in casting the film and in selecting locations. He took what is a broadly European approach and tried to cast actors from the South – and as far as possible from Burke’s ‘narrative territory’. Robicheaux is played by Tommy Lee Jones from Texas, his wife Bootsie by Mary Steenburgen from Arkansas. Other actors include Ned Beattie from Kentucky, John Goodman from Missouri (but living in New Orleans) and blues singer and guitarist Buddy Guy (born in Louisiana). Levon Helm from Arkansas plays the Confederate General Hood. Characters speak in thick accents using cajun French creole and other local speech forms. The music includes several zydeco tracks (the Black version of Cajun music) by Clifton Chenier. I can see this might cause problems and I switched the English subs on to watch the UK TV broadcast.
Allied to the use of language, Tavernier composes several scenes in long shot to create a rather different pacing for what viewers might assume is to be a typical crime fiction film. Most alienating of all, the script doesn’t ‘explain’ much – the audience has to pick up the clues. The plot involves the usual James Lee Burke ingredients. The action takes place in Iberia Parish where the ‘reformed’ alcoholic Robicheaux is a police officer who also runs a local bait shop and fishing operation. Three seemingly separate narratives develop. Robicheaux himself begins to see and then interact with a group of apparitions – a band of Confederate soldiers led by Texan General Hood. This is an example of the historical liberties Burke allows himself. Levon Helm was far too old to play the real Hood, who didn’t move to Louisiana until the Civil War was over. Robicheaux also ‘remembers’ seeing, as a child, a shackled Black man being shot running away from a police officer. This is prompted by the discovery of a skeleton with shackles which is ‘unearthed’ by Katrina’s floodwater. Robicheaux is officially involved in the investigation of the murder of a young bar girl. Finally, the local community is also disrupted by the arrival of a film crew (with John Sayles in a cameo as the director). Robicheaux’s bait shop is attractive to the film’s star (Peter Sarsgard) a frequently drunk young man who rent’s Robicheaux’s boat with his girlfriend (Kelly McDonald). Robicheaux is suspicious because of the involvement of a local gangster Julie Balboni (John Goodman) as an investor in the film. Robicheaux has known Balboni since childhood.
It’s an interesting story with unusual ingredients. The cast are all terrific, the film looks good and the music is great. I wish I could have seen this version in a UK cinema (but I’m grateful for the subs on TV). Many European audiences and filmmakers really love the best of Hollywood. Unfortunately the admiration is not always reciprocated. If you get the chance, try to see the full-length version of this film.