Friday, February 12, 2010
Elevator to the Gallows
They speak in urgent whispers and Miles Davis’ trumpet appears in the background, as if to inform us that we are witnessing something deep, true and tragic. Davis music, set to the beautiful black and white cinematography provides such pure mood that much of it could be told without any conversation. The lovers need to be together no matter what, however, she has a husband and he is Tavernier’s boss. Opening the film in the middle of such a brilliant moment of longing, sweeping from her face to a distant shot from the ground of Tavernier in his office building, we see the distance they're dealing with and the murder they’re discussing almost seems a reasonable price for true love.
Julien Tavernier isn’t a typical reckless killer, he’s a retired paratrooper and war hero now working for an arms company. At several points in the film he makes clear the fact that he despises the industry, but nonetheless, he works for them. Whteher this is a stance he takes to justify murder or an actual resentment isn't clear and doesn't matter much. His plan to murder Florence's husband is perfect, and the details of it are simple but effective. He locks his office door with the receptionist outside, telling her he’s not to be disturbed. He then puts on a pair of gloves and uses a grappling hook to scale the building from the outside, up two floors to his Mr. Carala’s office. Once there, he can walk right in with no alarm, after all he’s in his office all the time, Carala won't wonder how he got there.
His boss isn’t frightened in the least when Julien puts the gun to his head. He’s an arms dealer and, as he says, he has plenty of enemies. He asks if it's about money and clearly has no idea about Tavernier and Florence. He gets a little more concerned (for a second) when he sees it is his own gun. We don’t see the murder, only Tavernier placing the gun in his boss’s hand as a little black cat passes by outside. Julien climbs back down to his office in time to take a phone call from the doorman who walks them out of the building so it can be locked up as it is every day. Witnessed as being in his own office by both the receptionist and the doorman, his alibi should be established perfectly.
When Julien gets to the street, a young couple, Veronique(Yori Bertin) a local flower shop worker, and her delinquent boyfriend Louis (Georges Poujouly), admire Tavernier’s car as he folds down the convertible top with the push of a button, getting ready to drive away. Before he does though, he looks up at the building and sees his grappling hook still attached to the outside of the building and runs back to get it. Louis convinces Veronique, to come along as he steals Tavernier’s unattended car. They drive off, passing by the restaurant where Julien and Florence were to meet after the murder. Florence can’t see the driver as the top is going up, so she assumes that Julien lost his nerve and has ditching her for the flower girl. She gets lost in her thoughts and starts wandering around the city, as if hoping against reason to run into Julien or someone who knows where he is.
Julien, meanwhile, is on his way up in the elevator, but he forgot that they shut the power off for the weekend. Since nobody saw him enter the building, the power shuts down as he is in between floors. He can pry the door a bit and reach his hand out but he has no way to escape. Florence still wanders the city asking everyone she sees for information on his whereabouts She can’t accept that he‘s just left. Watching the sadness of her face framed against the dark streets, almost daring the cars to hit her while Miles Davis plays his trumpet hauntingly in the background is such an ethereal experience that it could be a separate movie and is certainly the heart of this one. (Malle drew criticism at the time for insisting that Moreau wear no make up, but he achieved exactly what he intended, stripping her beauty down to it's natural elements, accented only by the shadows and the music.) Malle's Moreau is a riveting picture of a truly lost soul grasping to keep her love from vanishing.
The young car thieves have taken their theft a little further now, Louis trading his leather jacket for Julien’s coat (and gun.) Driving recklessly, he causes a car accident with a German couple outside a motel. On exchanging information he says he’s Mr. Tavernier. Veronique plays along eagerly, relishing the chance to sign them into the motel as Mr. and Mrs. Tavernier. The young couple's posing is absurdly comical. Although obviously far too young, Louis tells war stories to the older German man, as if he was a war hero like Tavernier. He doesn't notice that the German corrects him on details, just plows ahead with his ridiculous claims. The German man calls Louis out on his charade after he starts choking on a cigar, calling him “Mr. Tavernier, whose name isn’t Mr. Tavernier and who was never in the army. He doesn't mind the deception though, as it gave them a good laugh. Their obvious incompetence at being Bonnie and Clyde is driven home well by Louis' attempts at a tough exterior.
We then flash back and forth between Julien and Florence. He's still trapped in the elevator, trying to figure a way out, and she is just as trapped in her search for him. Her search gets ever more hopeless as it’s dark and raining now although she doesn’t even seem to notice. She calls him desperately with her thoughts and her longing is almost tangible. Julien attemps to drop through the floor and down the elevator cable, still many floors up, not realizing that the night watchman will show up at that moment and turn the power on momentarily . He manages to get back into in the elevator and Florence continues searching . Miles plays a ironically upbeat tune as she tries to rationalize everything. She runs into an old friend of Julien’s who insists that he “must be with a broad.”
The young couple decide to leave in the night since their cover's blown. Louis tries to trade Tavernier’s car for the German’s. The German however, expected the attempt and removed a piece from the gearbox which he flaunts, when coming out and to apprehend them, pulling a "gun" on Louis. Louis panics and shoots them both dead with Tavernier’s gun, which was in his pocket. They flee the scene leaving the German’s car on the side of the road with Tavernier’s effects in it. Veronique’s apartment and while he panics, she imagines “the tragic lovers “ in the headlines. This leads to a quick Romeo and Juliet inspired suicide pact in hopes of avoiding arrest.
Florence is picked up by the police for being out in the early morning without ID, although the police become apologetic upon realizing her husband is the powerful arms dealer. One of the officers happens to let her know that they’re trying to find Tavernier for the murder of the German tourists.
Julien has fallen asleep in the elevator, and with the new day now here, the police are at the motel where the German couple was murdered. An officer lays out Tavernier’s obvious involvement for the press in time for the morning papers. The power comes back on in the arms company building and Julien manages to get out unseen only to find his car gone. The police are already in the building looking for information on Tavernier when the doorman discover’s Mr. Carala’s “suicide” and alerts them. Tavernier tries to call Florence, who he's told is asleep from her long night. He then orders breakfast not realizing that everyone around him recognizes him as a murderer from the papers.
Brought in for questioning, he is unable to provide an alibi for the tourist murders for fear of ruining his real murder alibi. The irony of the situation rattles Tavernier, who is exhausted and tells them where he was (but not why). The cops find his “elevator story” ridiculous.
Florence puts two and two together and realizes that Julien couldn’t have murdered the tourists and her husband as well, and resolves to save him. She remembers seeing Veronique (she knows she's the local flower girl) in Tavernier’s car and tracks her down, finding the couple only feeling lousy from their suicide attempt rather than dead. She confronts them on the murder and then makes an anonymous tip to the skeptical police. She then follows Louis to the Motel as he races to get a piece of evidence that he forgot (and which neatly resolves the story for all concerned.)
Malle succeds here in creating a world that is so absurdly intent on one man's downfall that rather than let him get away with a perfect murder, it conspires to convict him of another one and then dooms everyone involved like toppling dominoes. The odds of Florence finding her love seem as likely as Godot arriving, and the young would be criminals are doomed by their failure to grasp the ideas they try to emulate. The way that all three threads tie together to present one world as a cruel adversary for them all is brilliant. Also, interestingly for a movie with three murders, there is no focus on violence. This world is even too cold for that. Did I mention that Miles Davis does the soundtrack? His music paces the scenes perfectly whether moody or panicked and the comination of Malle, Moreau and Miles is something everyone should witness. Here's a preview: