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Claude Lelouch is best known for sentimental movies. Not all are
masterpieces, but many are really brilliant -with an excellent camera
work (made by Lelouch himself) and long scenes in which facial
expressions and movements of the actors replace dialogs, in order to
let us imagine their feelings.
This film, made after "Un homme et une femme" (Lelouch's cinematic breakthrough in 1966) and "Vivre pour vivre" (1967) is completely different from the previous two and from the following ones as well. Here the French director quits the sentimental themes for telling a very dramatic story, about a married man who kills three prostitutes and is sentenced to death.
The film is a strong condemnation of death penalty in France -in 1968, when the movie was made, capital punishment was still valid there, it was abolished many years later.
The film shares the same opinion with the US movie "Dead Man Walking" by Tim Robbins (1995): death penalty is useless, no matter which mistake the condemned man has done.
Lelouch films with a lot realism, as if it was a documentary. The story is told in a quite crude way -all the prison scenes are also shot in black and white, whereas the antecedents are in colour.
Death penalty is shown here as a barbarian ritual, a ceremony of the absurd.
I think it still remains a very courageous movie.
Why are the police so interested in Francois Toledo? He seems like a
regular guy, with a loving family and steady job at an auto factory.
he does have an ongoing adulterous affair with an divorced co-worker. But
that hardly seems to warrant the attention of five cops, who await outside
the motel room that Francois rents by the hour. After all, this is France
land of `Amour.'
The police explain that they're waiting for a suspicious noise. When none materializes, they leave the motel to wait for another day. Seems like a waste of taxpayers dollars (francs).
The authorities do finally nab Francois, interrogate him, and bring him to trial. Even after the trial, the viewer wonders what all of the fuss is about. The viewer is uncertain about Francois' guilt. The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.
The pace slows to a crawl once Francois begins serving his prison sentence. The slow pace is purposeful and appropriate. The tedium of prison life is made palpable for the viewer, such as Francois' endless staring at the ceiling lamp in his cell.
One of my favorite images is the Sunday worship service in the ol' cell block. The priest is on a raised platform at the intersection of two hallways. The layout of the prison almost looks like the layout of a cathedral.
It's not until most of the way through the film that we learn about Francois' past. We see flashbacks, heretofore unseen, from the alleged crimes, the investigation, and the trial testimony.
Although I'm not a fan of Claude LeLouche films, I really liked this one. It grabbed my interest from the start, and held it the whole way. The only negative, in my opinion, is the political message voiced over at the end.
I reviewed this movie as part of a project at the Library of Congress. I've named the project FIFTY: 50 Notable Films Forgotten Within 50 Years. As best I can determine, this film, like the other forty-nine I've identified, has not been on video, telecast, or distributed in the U.S. since its original release. In my opinion, it is worthy of being made available again.
André Cayatte was the first in France-all the baby boomers nurtured on
the "good " principles of the " Cahiers du Cinema" tend to forget it-to
expose his disgust for the death penalty.It was 1952,please do not
forget it!"Nous sommes tous des assassins " already showed it all,the
prisoners' fear at night when it might be THE morning,the depiction in
lavish details of the whole scene which used to relegate France to
Seventeen years after,enter Claude Lelouch.I must confess I 'm not a big fan of that director.There are notable exceptions of course and "la vie ,l'amour et la mort" is part of them.Perhaps Lelouch's best ,just after two documentaries and just before the boring "UN Homme Qui me Plait" ,it was ,in the wake of the spirit of May 68 ,a heartfelt plea against the guillotine and the bestial rites which surround the execution.The actors were all virtually unknown -which is a departure from Lelouch's stuff which generally features French (and foreign) stars galore.Caroline Cellier was featured in Chabrol's excellent "Que la Bête Meure" and nobody had heard of Amidou when the movie was released.
Amidou's "mental disease" provides the movie with its main flaw:his impotence when he is with prostitutes ,his life with his wife,his brand new love with one of his colleagues ,all of this do not hang well.But the construction of the film is subtle :during the first half of the movie,we do not exactly know why the police try to get Toledo.Some people who do not know about the very subject of the film might think the hero is victim of a miscarriage of justice (The verdict is anyway). After the verdict,the color turns black and white (a smart move) and a voice-over tells about of the conditions of life of a man who is going to die.Flashbacks (in color) explains (in the last part) why Toledo was sentenced to die.It's all the more remarkable as his questioning by the police captain is completely silent.We cannot hear what the mouths are saying.
It was not a big smash for Lelouch who would soon return to more commercial stuff ,emerging from time to time with the occasional entertaining comedy ("La Bonne Année" " Le Voyou" )but without any genuine creativity.
The next link on the chain begun by Cayatte in 1952 which Lelouch continued was Jose Giovanni's "Deux Hommes dans la Ville" where Delon's character also died on the guillotine.Then there was Michel Drach's "Le Pull -Over Rouge" (recently remade as a made-for-TV film "l'Affaire Ranucci")in 1979,and finally by 1981,there was no more death penalty in France.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Andre Cayette arguably pioneered social comment in French cinema with
his Are We All Murderers in 1952, other film makers flagged down the
bandwagon and hopped aboard but none perhaps more unexpectedly than
Claude Lelouch who had himself cornered the market in chocolate-box
cinema and whose films celebrated Life rather than dwelling on Death as
he does here.
His choice of metaphor - a bullfight in which we are spared no gory detail of the barbaric 'sport' - is apt only inasmuch as it is a barbaric ritual but inapt inasmuch as in general the bull has committed no crime and therefore requires no 'punishment' and there are those who would argue that a serial killer HAS committed not one but several crimes and does therefore deserve some kind of punishment. Lelouch also attempts to stack the deck in the way he chooses to tell his story; we begin with the main character, Amidou, being tailed by five plain clothes cops as he enjoys a motel rendez-vous with a girl friend. For all we know he is as innocent as the bull in a corrida and equally out-numbered. Nothing about him is in any way sinister and if anything he seems a pleasant enough sort of guy albeit an unfaithful one - we see him at home with wife and child as well as enjoying trysts with the girl friend. Eventually he is arrested in mid-copulation and THEN we learn why he has attracted the attention of the flics. He may or may not be the serial killer who has strangled several prostitutes - and if he was, he has 'reformed' as it were, on the strength of his new relationship. Be that as it may he is convicted and sentenced to death and it is here, in the latter part of the film, that Lelouch sets out his stall; the film segues from colour to black and white as we register first the tedium of prison life and then the growing terror as retribution draws nigh. Lelouch emphasizes the ritual aspects (parallelling the bullfight) which include the minutiae surrounding the assembly of the guillotine. Caroline Cellier, a fine French stage actress, makes one of her relatively rare film appearances, but the movie belongs to Amidou, then totally unknown, who delivers a fine performance in a fine film.
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