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Pierre Francois Lacenaire became, during a short period prior to his death in 1836, the most renowned person in France and, as this film opens, he is seen within his comfortable and spacious prison cell the eve of his rendezvous with the guillotine, as he hosts final visitors. Adroitly portrayed by Daniel Auteuil, Lacenaire scandalised Paris at his trial for murder due to a display of keen barristerial talents that, in association with his attack of Catholicism based apparently upon his experiences as student in a Jesuit school, and his obvious and complete lack of moral health, kept his countrymen of all classes in captivation. Director Francis Girod, by polished employment of flashbacks, plaits the episodic structure of the scenario into a consistently interesting portrait of Lacenaire, who patterned his life's actions after those of the infamous criminal (later chief of police) Eugene Francois Vidocq. The memoirs of Lacenaire, reprinted in 1952, are the framework for this well-produced work, and they attempt to account for his sociopathic behaviour as, despite his being raised in a comfortable bourgeois environment, the flawed youth established early on a primary goal being his suicide through the commission of homicide, although an inherent distaste of violence was his principle for utilization of henchmen to assist in the performance of his crimes. Dostoevsky, beguiled by Lacenaire's outrageous acts, eventually modeled Raskolnikov after him in "Crime And Punishment", and this film mentions in passing other writers who were entertained by the 36 year old murderer while he was jailed, among whom was Prosper Merimee, author of the novella "Carmen", basis of Bizet's opera. A splendidly crafted screenplay by Georges Conchon (his last), and a piquant motival score from Laurent Petitgirard combine in guiding a viewer toward the film's most significant scenes, the beautifully edited court appearances of Lacenaire, vividly realized by Auteuil and better experienced in the primary French version, since the English language subtitles are at times ill-matched with the dialogue. Although it has been recorded that the Monarchy was fearful of Lacenaire's potential effect upon the French masses, only about 600 attended his execution that is depicted here in accurate fashion, a keynote of the entire production that also strongly benefits from correct costuming by Yvonne Sassinot de Nesle and the outstanding set designs of Jacques Bufnoir, sterling acting by, in addition to Auteuil, Jean Poiret and Jacques Weber, with ancillary highlights, in a motion picture blessed with excellent photography and lighting, being screenplay emphases upon the contemporaneous importance of phrenology, the sing-song and puerile poetry of Lacenaire, and especially the final scenes, exact in their details of the accused's rejection of a chaplain's ministrations and his shrugged doffing of his frock coat, all blended worthily to increase knowledge of a man who in recent time has been well-drawn on film only in CHILDREN OF PARADISE, by Marcel Carne and Jacques Prevert.
Lacenaire is well known of the French audience.He is featured in the
most famous movie of our whole cinema "les enfants du paradis ".Marcel
Carné's magnum opus masterfully mixed real life characters (Baptiste
Debureau,Lacenaire and even Avril) and fictional ones
(Garance,Montray).Francis Girod's style does not look like Carne's to
the slightest extent,but it includes some nods to the great ancestor:
the carnival for instance .
Girod loves the unconventional figures:in "le trio infernal" he made delicate Romy Schneider an awful criminal.In "la banquière" he made the same actress a bisexual Robin Hood of the finance.In that later film,he showed his limits however.He invented the character (supposedly a real life one) almost as much Arthur Penn did with Bonnie and Clyde.
Ditto for "Lacenaire" , a movie which wants us to side with the hero.Lacenaire might have been an anarchist but he was a criminal too.He might have been an educated man (you may remember how Bob Dylan praised gangster Joey Gallo -"Desire" album- just because he used to read Nietzsche in jail),poisoned with religion and a bourgeois family,he remains in the end nothing but a murderer:there's a tendency to forgive the worst of criminals when they have a high IQ (see also for that matter Frankenheimer's "the young savages")The movie is a long flashback ,based on Lacenaire's memoirs .There's the obligatory trial where Daniel Auteuil can play his "hero of the people" part .There's the obligatory gay character.There's the obligatory guillotine scene.It's finally a politically correct movie (= made to please you ,nineties viewer) Lacenaire should never have left the children of the paradise.
The improbable hero of this unusual French import is Pierre Lacenaire, a gentleman scoundrel whose flamboyant manner, articulate wit, and polite but profound contempt for a society he found hypocritical earned him many admirers, including the police detective responsible for sending him to the guillotine in 1836. The film might have been a leisurely, lightweight period comedy with little relevance outside its native country were it not for the eccentric (and sometimes dangerous) charm of its protagonist, shown arguing the case against himself with crowd pleasing panache during the final, farcical courtroom trial, demanding a death sentence to secure his own immortality. The film itself is equally playful and unpredictable, camouflaging its modest budget behind a curious leapfrog structure and several unexpected gestures too surprising not to be true. If Lacenaire were alive today he would likely regard it as the fulfillment of a dream come true: to see his entire life transformed into theatre.
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