Monday, July 9, 2012

Les deux Messieurs

In 1946, after returning to France from the US, Julien Duvivier, director of such cinematic gems as Pépé le Moko and Un carnet de Bal made what is arguably his darkest and most daring film, Panique. Based on a story from prolific Belgian author Georges Simenon, Panique is a condemnation of mob mentality, xenophobia and anti-sematism wrapped in a noir-ish blanket in literally a carnival atmosphere. A scathing indictment of what had certainly transpired during the recently concluded war in France, it's no wonder both critics and French audiences rejected the film upon its initial release. Looking back though, it is much easier to appreciate what a bold, if somewhat nihilistic statement, about humanity Duvivier made in post-war France. 33 years later, in 1989, another French director, Patrice Laconte who was known only for his lightweight comedies at the time, would remake the film and actually improve on it.

Synopsis: A young local woman is found murdered. Both police and neighbors suspect the eccentric and misanthropic Monsieur Hire.

The knock on much of French cinema, especially art house, is the escargot-like pacing. That complaint is immediately neutralized by Laconte's Monsieur Hire which dives head first, and somewhat conventionally, into the mystery by showing the victim and investigating detective straight away. Next, the film focuses on Monsieur Hire himself followed closely by the object of his desire (and possible next victim?) Alice. It's obvious from the start, Laconte's remake differs from Duvivier's original in character, structure and ultimately theme. Instead of deconstructing the story in Panique or even updating it for our modern sensibilities, Laconte has reconstructed it into a quite fascinating mystery/character study that concentrates much more on the Hire character than the first film did. This comes at the expense of the neighborhood's characters, save for Alice, who were much more prominent and threatening in Panique. However, Laconte is aiming for a different target than Duvivier, so the lynch mob aspect of the original takes much more of a subtle, uneasy, subtextual tone in the remake.  

The character of Hire is quite different in his newer incarnation. Played by pale, diminutive actor Michel Blanc, Hire is a near obsessive compulsive with strict routines that govern his life right down to the music he plays when he spies on his beautiful neighbor Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire) who lives in the apartment across from his. In Panique, Hire is played by burly, bearded, ex-boxer Michel Simon who, although he's suppose to be a misanthrope, appears nearly gregarious and jovial at times. It's one of the few problems I had with the original, Hire/Simon appears very likable thus making it tough to buy into neighborhood's dislike of him. Such is not the case with Blanc's Hire. Although he can be sympathetic when playing with his mice or bowling blindfolded, he seems truly self-loathing and uncomfortable in his own skin, while at the same time, putting on an appropriate air of haughtiness and superiority to his neighbors.

While the story in Monsieur Hire is nearly identical to that of Panique, Laconte and co-screenwriter Patrick DeWolf change the structure and focus just enough to set up a mystery that contains no less than three plot twists that play out in the last half hour of the film. This change in structure to the original adds a whole new dimension for the viewer and helps maintain a believable unpredictability to characters and events. Panique is much more of a traditional noir that lays its cards on the table at the outset and whose ultimate outcome is fairly certain early on. Duvivier's version does contain an ending twist that packs a punch, but Laconte's, in its underplayed, subtle way, is much more surprising and rewarding especially with no foreknowledge of either film or story.

As I've said, the theme in Panique deals much more with xenophobic paranoia than does its remake. By changing the character focus to almost exclusively Hire, Alice, her boyfriend and the detective, Laconte has nearly, but not quite, excised the original's message in favor of a more relevant, modern day theme. That theme is encapsulated in a story Hire relates to one of the prostitutes he regularly visits and concerns a supposed sweet old lady who feeds birds. The point of the story is that you can never truly know anyone and this message gets struck on again and again with each plot twist. Panique's message was very bold and brave for its time and place, and is certainly still relevant, but it just doesn't resonate near as much in our modern day culture. Monsieur Hire's theme, however, somehow managed to be prescient given the proliferation of the voyeurism, the internet, false identities and the like.

Maybe it's film purist's sacrilege to pick Laconte's remake over Duvivier's original but that was a relatively easy choice for me. Duvivier's is a great story adaptation with good acting and atmosphere but technically it's just a bit above average, even for the time, as far as cinematography, sound, wardrobe and music are concerned. LaConte's remake is near perfect in every respect with two fantastic performances by Blanc and Bonnaire, exceptional cinematography, music, sound, wardobe - in short, everything. But it's the rewriting of the story that really makes it transcendent.
As of this post, Monsieur Hire is currently available on Netflix Instant and I'd strongly recommend watching it first and "on the blind" as it can be easily spoiled just by reading the synopsis of Panique.

Final scores:
Panique 8/10
Monsieur Hire 9/10

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