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La fin du monde (1931)
Confusing yet exhilarating
I have a love-hate approach to this movie. What I love about it is the sheer insane ambition of it all. The End of the World! And not one of those cheating films where right at the last minute something happens, the danger is averted and we never get to see the catastrophe we've been building toward. No, Gance goes all the way, with collapsing buildings, screaming crowds, boiling oceans, lava flows and worldwide mayhem. Though most people scoff at the 1930s-era special effects, I find them oddly endearing. The blurry comet hurtling through space has a sort of odd mystery about it that today's HD special effects have to forego. Today's SF producers have to have scientific accuracy; Gance was able to make a poet's vision of astronomy.
But what I hate about the film is the truly awful acting and writing. Early American talkies also had that stagy, declamatory style of acting, simply because nobody had done it before and they were learning on the job. The dialog is incredibly slow and the emotional delivery zigzags from flat to extreme, often within the same scene. Gance plays the saintly Jean Novalic, and delivers most of lines gazing soulfully upward - he's so holy, doves perch on him as he's dying! His performance alone is MST3K-worthy, but Colette Darfeuil as Genevieve is a good match for him. She veers from kittenish coquette to screeching drama queen, and from devout acolyte to corrupted vamp. It's hard to know just WHAT Gance wanted from this actress, or what her character was supposed to be. She seems to be an amalgam of several different women, and is completely unbelievable.
Victor Francen is a bit more comfortable before the camera, but he also suffers from the bizarre screenplay. He's believable as the single-minded man of science, but he's also supposed to be a political idealist, media mogul and action hero.
It would be unfair not to point out that the movie is materially injured by its editing history. Gance lost control of the project when it was only partly completed, and the movie was taken out of his hands and severely edited. Like Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis', what exists today is just a partial version of what Gance intended, and much of it makes little sense, even after several viewings.
The problem was that Gance was TOO ambitious; it wasn't enough for him to make a film about the end of the world, he wanted to make deep reflections on the state of mankind and prescribe a utopian solution. There's just too much crammed into this movie. The science fiction story about the comet really occupies less than a third of the movie. There are at least 3 other subplots: 1) a love triangle between the two brothers and Genevieve, later supplemented by Schomburg's seduction of the heroine. 2) A political theme, with a world war threatening and the governments of the world hurtling towards military conflagration. And 3) something to do with world stock markets and military/industrial speculation. Instead of eliminating some of these complicated subplots, the people who replaced Gance just half-heartedly pruned them, so we have fragments of subplots which seem to come out of nowhere and then slip back out of view.
The love story is particularly sketchy, yet it's the driving force for a lot of the plot. We can believe that Jean and Genevieve are in love, because we see a few scenes of them talking to each other and discussing their future. But it's a real surprise to find that Martial is also in love with her; he's a lot older than she is, and we never even see them interact until Jean basically hands her over to his brother in his will, and orders them to eventually get married. I think Genevieve is supposed to be the sort of character who is attracted to these two steely saints, but can't live in the rarified air of their idealism, and ends up falling back into the sinful fleshpots represented by Schomburg. She's such a flimsy character, it's hard to understand why so many men are deeply interested in her.
The conclusion at least is satisfying. The infamous orgy scene isn't that shocking, but when it's broken up by a procession of religious penitents, the whole thing becomes almost hallucinatory. One starts to wonder if this can really be happening, even in a film as crazy as this one. The music, canting camera angles, blurred lenses - it all reaches a wild climax in the great hall where human beings form a United States of Mankind before the comet strikes and wipes out all but a saving remnant of humanity. After all this sweaty insanity, the coda, with human beings returning to their various faiths and beginning again with primitive agriculture, is a bit of an anticlimax, but it's not likely that anything could compare with Gance's wild vision of the apocalypse.
Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931)
I was so annoyed by this miscast mess of a movie I could hardly watch it to the end. It's astonishing to think that the people who made this film, all professionals in charge of the great, grand, omnipotent entertainment machine that was Hollywood, had not a single clue among them of why Buster Keaton was a great star in the 20s. He was hardly an unknown when talkies came along; the writers, directors and producers were surely very familiar with his work. Yet when it came time for THEM to put to use this accomplished artist, they could think of nothing to do with him but to stand him next to some towering Amazons and then titter, "Look! He's SHORT! Haha!" Keaton HAD made use of his slight stature for comedy purposes in his own films, but always in a subversive manner. His adversaries (usually men, but sometimes women, as in "My Wife's Relations") fatally underestimate him because of his size and blank expression, and end up paying the price when he triumphs despite them. The joke was always that THEY thought that he was a shrimp and a dummy; WE always knew that Buster was the smartest one in the room. His plans may not always work out the first time, but in the end he'd show them all and win. "PBB" turns the tables and tries to enlist us on the side of the sarcastic bullies, and it just doesn't work.
The worst part of the movie is the way it treats Elmer's contrived "courtship" of Angelica. Having her taller and more confident that he is would not necessarily be a deal-breaker. I don't think a little thing like physical discrepancy would be enough to overwhelm Buster Keaton, if he were playing his traditional role of innocent, good-hearted, yet resourceful suitor. In "Spite Marriage" he was mismatched with an experienced woman of the world, and ended up winning her affections in spite of the odds. But Angelica has no good qualities to make us want to see her settle down with Elmer. Despite her good looks and money, she's a selfish, shallow cow. Buster Keaton's women were almost always nice, sweet girls we were glad to see him win in the end, or else they were violent harridans we were happy to see him escape from. In this movie, there's no happy ending for poor Buster. I kept hoping to the end that he'd manage to escape, that there would be some other girl waiting for him (couldn't be Nita because she was married, perhaps Polly, who at least had brains), but no. The movie doesn't even really end - it just sort of stops, leaving us to assume that Elmer is trapped into a loveless marriage with the horrible Angelica. I found it left me antagonized and depressed at the same time.
Interesting, pro-German take on the Napoleonic Wars
Quite an interesting movie, though I saw it without the benefit of a musical score, making it all too easy to riff. My husband is a big Napoleon fan, and was continually exclaiming that the extremely pro-German slant of the film was completely contrary to the actual history. But he did admit that it hit a lot of historical plot points correctly, only in a rearranged order, or with some compression of time, which is not unusual in a movie. The Battle of Ligny in particular is not often portrayed on film. One problem with the movie is the question of time; it's almost impossible to know how much time is elapsing between events. We go from the Congress of Vienna to Napoleon on Elba, to Napoleon returning to France, to a panicky call- up of allied forces, to scenes of Napoleon advancing through France (entirely on foot, it appears). How long did all this take? A week? Three months? We're never told. I suppose that the original audience must have learned this history in school, and it wasn't thought necessary to spell out the details, just as a modern American film assumes that the audience has some knowledge of American geography, and doesn't find it necessary to explicitly state the distance between, say, Washington and New York. It's just assumed that the audience will roughly know where they are on the map.
Naturally, the real hero of the story is the Prussian commander, Blucher. Napoleon is a menacing, though intermittent, presence in the first half hour, and then disappears entirely for the next hour. Wellington has even less screen time until we get to the actual battle of Waterloo, and despite his nickname of "The Iron Duke", we see him on the verge of cracking under the pressure until a message from Blucher FINALLY makes it to him, and steels him to hold out until rescue comes. The scenes of the Prussians creeping through the woods towards the battlefield remind me of "Siegfried" - the Germans really did love those shots of tall trees with shafts of hazy light slanting down; it's only proper that this image should be evoked again to portray another German hero.
The Blackheath Poisonings (1992)
Disappointing conclusion spoils meticulous Victorian atmosphere
I was reasonably entertained by the first two parts of this Victorian mystery. The set decor was very detailed, and I especially liked the Victorian warehouses used for exterior shots of the toy factory, as well as for Roger and Isabel's slummy love nest. But I simply could not get deeply involved in the mystery because of my dislike of pretty much every character. My lack of sympathy for "free-spirited" Isabel left my with a purely academic interest in seeing if she could beat the rap. Screwing her sister-in-law's husband while they're all living under the same roof is so barbarously selfish and cold, it didn't really matter to me if she was hanged for a murder she didn't commit. I would have been happy to see such a worthless woman removed from the world by pretty much any means.
The character of the police inspector seemed very exaggerated in his mannerisms. The usual excuse for this sort of thing is that he has a razor-sharp mind and no time for social niceties (à la Sherlock Holmes). So it was very perplexing to me that he seemed to completely fall apart in brain when Paul came to him with information about George's transvestite activities, and made a plausible case for George being the murderer. The police ALREADY knew that George was a transvestite, but it was not information they had shared with anyone else. When someone comes along who knows information that only the police know, they usually pay attention. So why did they suddenly turn stupid and act as if this were some tall tale Paul had just concocted to get Isabel off the hook? Especially as the case against Isabel depended upon the clerk IDing her as the veiled woman who bought poison from him? They should have realized that there was another possible culprit, who would have had access to Isabel's shoes as well.
But it hardly mattered, because the whole "George masquerades as Isabel" plot was so ludicrously far-fetched, it was hard to take the mystery seriously by that point. It could have worked if they'd cast an actor for George who was reasonably similar in size to Isabel - I would hope the original novel covered that plot hole by making them not so different in size. But the filmmakers couldn't resist going for the lurid thrill of making George a grotesquely fat pig, with jiggling titties, hanging jowls and bee-stung lips.
The "mystery" turned out to be so lame, I'd already drawn the conclusion that George was the woman on the common, almost as soon as it was revealed that he owned the corset (which hardly looked big enough to fit him, anyway). It's disappointing that mystery writers today seem to think that twisted sex is the only really exciting motive for anything anymore. No matter how much they set the scene with financial problems, wills, professional jealousy and ambition, they throw it all away at the last to show us a pervert in a tizzy. It's becoming downright boring. I could hardly believe that the final poisoning and Paul's confession were the actual conclusion - I kept hoping that there would be a REAL twist, and we'd discover, as Isabel steamed away to freedom, that she really WAS guilty of at least one of the murders, and that Paul had committed a crime to free a guilty woman. But alas, the program ended in a flat, drab anticlimax, with the stupid inspector closing the file with no particular concern to find out who might have murdered George.
Shocked by disappointment
I loved the first two LOTR films, and was keyed up almost beyond endurance to see ROTK the first week it opened. When the film was over, I was stunned by the depth of disappointment I was feeling. In fact, I went back and watched the movie again a few days later; I could not believe that it really had been as bad as I'd experienced. The fault must have been mine, I thought; I'd been too wound up to really take it in. With a cooler head, I'd be able to enjoy it and the magic would work again, as it had with the previous two movies. Alas, no. The movie was just as bad as I'd thought, and it somehow managed to posthumously poison my pleasure in the other two movies as well. I've never been able to enjoy any of them since.
I came to really hate Peter Jackson, especially after watching all the "making of" interviews on the dvds. I believe he is an undisciplined, self-indulgent egomaniac, and these characteristics progressively took over as the film series continued. Fellowship of the Ring was the best of the lot, and I feel it's because it was a gamble. Now that the series is over, people forget that before FOTR premiered, there was no guarantee that the film would be a success. LOTR was a notoriously difficult book to adapt, and many worried that it couldn't be done. In that atmosphere, Jackson and his co-writers were at their most deferential to the original Tolkien text, and almost humble in their approach to such a daunting task.
After FOTR was a big success, they became more confident in their own skills, and felt bold enough to try a little rewriting for The Two Towers, even while assuring fans that it was only a little strategic reorganizing, and the original story would be preserved in ROTK. By that point, however, Jackson was so deluded by the sycophantic flattery that surrounded him on all sides, he was convinced that the fans would adoringly accept anything he filmed, simply because it was the product of such a genius. ROTK could not contain both Tolkien's story and Jackson's ego, and guess which won in the end? The story flopped all over the place, with Saruman's storyline simply chopped off and left unresolved, while Jackson wasted time indulging in invented scenes back in Rohan, when the story should have moved decisively to Gondor. That, however, was not the part of the story that interested him, so we had to have more loving photography of carved dark wood beams and animal-skin rugs, plus a vastly overdrawn love connection between Eowyn and Aragorn. When Jackson finally had to tear himself away from this romantic Viking paradise and turn to Gondor, he revenged himself on the story by turning Gondor into a sterile, dead cement city, full of cowards and idiots.
Worst of all, I felt that by ROTK Jackson was even getting sloppy on what had been a trademark of the films until then - set design and scale. For a scene where Gandalf and Pippin are on a balcony, looking towards Minas Morgul, he had both actors on the same set, with Pippin merely kneeling at the balcony, while Gandalf towered over him. However, the brain can quite clearly calculate that the scale of the balcony in relation to the bodies of both characters is wrong - in FOTR, Jackson would have built a larger-scale model of the balcony for Pippin, to keep up the illusion that he was a smaller figure in a setting made for people of Gandalf's size. This time, he couldn't be bothered, as if he felt that he'd paid his dues being accurate in the first two movies, and now he should be free to play around and have fun.
That was amply demonstrated with the stupid green goblins, the endless battle scenes, the noise, the shaking camera, and the labored "humour" in every Gimli scene. What annoyed me the most, however, was that Jackson seemed to have no grasp of what Tolkien thought was important. In the movie, only the "stars" are able to act (and yes, that includes the Hobbits), whereas Tolkien showed that nobility, courage and heroism are EVERYONE's business. In the books, the individual soldiers of Gondor had personalities, felt connected to the greater cause, and debated how best they could do their duty. In Jackson's movies, Aragorn and Gandalf do all the fighting, while crowds of women blubber helplessly and soldiers blunder about uselessly. This is why his removal of the Scouring of the Shire was both execrable and inevitable. Jackson can't recognize any drama in ordinary people in ordinary settings facing crisis and either failing or rising to the occasion - to him, the Shire is just dumb peasants who were too stupid not to leave home for adventure, and there's nothing more to be expected of them. Tolkien's whole theme was that adventure and crisis are NOT the sole property of noble heroes, but that it can touch anyone, and how we react when it does is as important as Aragorn's struggle with Sauron or Denethor's descent into madness.
An intimate and touching story
Unlike the grand canvas of 'Der Untergang', 'Sophie Scholl' is an intimate struggle on an almost miniature scale between the forces of good and evil, freedom and tyranny. Instead of famous names like Hitler, Goebbels, Speer et al., the characters in this story were, at the time, mere nobodies - a boy and girl and a few of their friends (who barely figure in the story) versus the mundane machinery of the local Gestapo. They weren't bomb-planting conspirators, just young people writing pamphlets, and yet this was enough to merit the death penalty. The film does a good job impressing the viewer with how quickly they were grabbed, convicted, and their lives snuffed out - the whole thing was hustled along in about 3 days. The same efficient machinery that murdered millions in concentration camps ground them up like sausages, without a hitch or hesitation.
At the time, their deaths must have seemed like the most futile waste imaginable - the war went on for years more, and it must have seemed, even to those sympathetic, that they had been as thoroughly obliterated as a blade of grass under the treads of a tank. It's never discussed in the film, but as Sophie and her brother were caught and taken away to their doom, I kept remembering the faith with which they embarked on their mission. "The whole university will rise up," said Hans adamantly, certain that once the students read their pamphlet, the lovers of truth and freedom would mobilize and put a stop to Hitler's madness. Yet when they were caught...nothing. The students stood by, cowed and submissive, and there was no uprising. Hans and Sophie must have been bitterly disappointed, but their reproaches were all to the representatives of the Nazi regime that interrogated them, not to the people who did not share their courage and clarity.
Behind That Curtain (1929)
This film is of historical interest, as the first appearance on film of the Charlie Chan character, even though he doesn't appear until about 50 minutes into the movie, and is in only 3 scenes. But as a movie, it is almost intolerably bad. The actors were obviously very unsure of themselves, making the transition from silent to sound movies. I've seen Warner Baxter in silent films, and he was by no means as frozen as he was in this movie. Now and then he relaxes, and his dialog becomes a bit more natural, as it would be a few years later in a film like "42nd Street". But here, he seems flummoxed by the need to actually MEMORIZE lines - there are several moments where he speaks hesitantly, for all the world as if he just couldn't remember the line, and can no longer just say whatever he wants, as one could in a silent film.
Baxter is not the worst offender - the character of Mr. Galt (destined to play the melancholy role of "The Body") speaks so slowly and with such exaggerated pronunciation, is just terrible. Many of the actors appeared to be falling back on stage performance techniques, with loud emoting and over-enunciation, and as a result they over-powered the camera - or they would have, if their loud, artificial voices hadn't been combined with near-immobility. Everyone seems afraid to move - they plant themselves in one spot, then roar out their lines.
The camera-work is also very unimaginative for the most part, with one notable exception - the camel caravan traveling over the desert was quite beautifully photographed. It's probably not a coincidence that the scene was purely visual - when the filmmakers could fall back on the more familiar silent movie techniques, they seemed much freer and imaginative. The new technology, by contrast, introduced awkwardness and seemed burdensome.
The plot and the script were both very lame. The murderer is revealed very quickly, and mystery is replaced by a love triangle and a romance. Eve, the heroine, overacts horribly, with lots of head-bobbing and wriggling to convey her anguish. Her motivation is completely unbelievable - married to a murdering psychopath who has every reason in the world to kill her, she persists in fleeing from the police, and refusing to help convict him, even when her own life is at stake, and the police have hard evidence anyway, and there is no chance he can escape justice.
The script does deserve some credit for treating a theme like adultery in a rather surprisingly hard-edged way. There's no softening of the despicable betrayal, or of the heroine's painful discovery that her husband has been sleeping with their Indian maid - she even finds the latter's earring in her own bed! She has her own moment of temptation later on, but resists with the time-honored line, "After all, he IS my husband!" It's a good reminder that the '20s were by no means a strait-laced decade - the tasteful expunging of sex in the movies came later. But then the movie ruins it by having Eve shrinking from divorcing her cad of a husband (one of my favorite lines, by the way: "Are-you-going-to------DIVORCE------me???") because she is afraid of the scandal. Divorce wasn't THAT big a scandal in the '20s, especially among the rich. Eve is always veering between put-upon, shrinking damsel in distress and unpredictable, capable woman on her own. The movie would have been far better if she had been portrayed as a strong, modern woman throughout, but that Eve would never have been so stupid and sentimental as to leave a murderer roaming the streets.
Flying Virus (2001)
Baby saw a bad, bad movie
This is without a doubt the worst movie I have ever seen outside MST3K. In fact, it would have been a perfect candidate for Mike and bots to snark on, and I can only hope that the Film Crew might discover it one day and give it the appropriate treatment. The writing is terrible, and the film doesn't even TRY to make any of the characters likable. From sullen, duck-billed Gabrielle Anwar to scruffy, chip-on-the-shoulder Craig Sheffer, to Rutger Hauer, who looks astonishingly like Michael Moore in this film, there is not one character I wouldn't be happy to see stung to death by killer bees. Ann Bauer is supposed to be a sexy reporter who has men falling like ninepins everywhere she goes, but she absolutely no chemistry with anyone in the movie, neither her loathsome soon-to-be ex-husband or the laughable Lothario, Scotty. Anwar mutters her dialog half the time, and Sheffer seems to think that grumbling sarcasm denotes strong masculinity.
These two characters are supplemented by Hauer's Ezekiel, some nutcase American commando who lurches about waving a pistol in one hand and a little black book in the other. One guess what THAT is supposed to be, and I don't think it's the U.S. Uniform Code of Military Justice. There is also a U.S. State Department official named Scotty, who mysteriously seems to be running the entire Brazilian Amazon, with just one office and no secretary. According to this movie, Brazil has no real government, because Americans have moved in to eradicate native tribes, carpet-bomb nice upper-middle class towns, set up military no-go areas and take home all the oil. I'm guessing they picked on the State Department to run this operation, because trying to pin it to the better-known CIA and Department of Defense would have been too unbelievable.
This movie gives the term "ugly American" a whole new level of meaning. The must insulting suggestion is that American soldiers don't seem to know how to shoot when confronted by loincloth-wearing bushmen armed with spears and bows and arrows. Wave after wave of machinegun-toting American commandos are mowed down by flying spears and flaming arrows before they can manage to get off a single shot. Of course, they obligingly stand upright and go running across clearings even though they are surrounded on all sides by bushes and buildings, so it makes it a bit easier for the natives to take aim. And boy, can they aim! Every dart kills a soldier, and every flaming arrow hits a can of gasoline, causing an explosion which kills a few more Americans. I guess in basic training, these guys were told that if their clothes catch fire, they should go flailing across country, until they find another barrel of gasoline to catch hold of for support. It's like watching 4 Denethors charging across the screen.
"Oil" seems to be the magic word here, which smooths away inconvenient facts and excuses the most ludicrous plot device, in this case, killer bees that will ethnically cleanse the Amazon of inconvenient natives so Americans can systematically rape the land. Actually, I think the writers deserve an award for their restraint: they managed to get through the entire movie without once using the word "Bush".
The movie also uses a hoary old cliché, which is that natives are well-meaning but disorganized. They need a white man to turn them into a potent force, and this shows up in the shape of the mysterious leader of the 'Shadow People', an American doctor named (I kid you not) 'Savior' (Duncan Regehr), who righteously lectures Ann on America's polluting ways, citing this as "one small example of your government's policy of sacrificing the environment for corporate greed."
Half the idiocy takes place on the ground, and the other in the air on a bee-infested passenger jet where Ann's husband Martin gets to prove what a hero he is. He is accompanied by Easily-Led Captain ("You're in charge out there"), Feisty Black Stewardess, Nerdy Kid, Surfer Babe and Bill Maher Wannabe. Everyone else is just ethnically diverse background chorus.
The Phantom of the Opera (2004)
Not good at all
I've never seen the stage musical, and I can only imagine that the live performance has some special atmosphere that has inspired its longevity and the devotion of its fans. This movie alone would leave me completely mystified as to the musical's popularity. It's rare that a movie can plod through over 2 hours without EVER quickening my pulse or raising my interest. As far as I'm concerned, the best moment in this film was right at the beginning, when the old chandelier was hoisted into the air and the opera house was transformed from a dust-covered, shabby wreck into a vibrant, red-and-gold vision. There was a true moment of spookiness as a mysterious wind swept the gray present away and brought to life a brightly-colored, lush past (even though it seemed copied from the transformation scene at the end of Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast').
First problem - this story is NOT taking place in the famous Paris Opera House where Gaston Leroux set the original story. Instead, it's something called the Opera Populaire, definitely a cut below in terms of Art. So what we have is a sort of Frenchified Savoy Opera, while the audience is still dressed to the nines and drawn from the highest levels of society, which leads to a basic disconnect from the very beginning. It's hard to believe in Christine as a great artist whom the world takes seriously when her opera company is staging lewd burlesques and tasteless spectacles. In the book and earlier movies, the story revolved around several performances of Gounod's 'Faust'. But since all the music has to be written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and it's a basic rule that you shouldn't put a great opera in the middle of your crappy opera, all serious music is eliminated and Christine sings wishy-washy ballads. A further problem is that the Phantom's score of 'Don Juan' doesn't sound any better than the crap 'Hannibal' and 'Il Muto' presented earlier in the movie, so HE doesn't impress as much of a genius, either.
The two managers sing in a sort of fake Gilbert and Sullivan style, which increases my feeling that at times I was watching an overblown 'Topsy Turvy' - if you're going to do this sort of thing, you should at least find a witty lyricist. Thank goodness for DVD subtitles, because without them I wouldn't have had the faintest idea what Carlotta was screaming during her "diva" song.
I agree with those who have already commented on the Phantom's very minor facial deformity - Christine's expression throughout the unmasking scene is so unchanged, I thought she was sharing my perplexity at his reaction. What's the big deal? He's not THAT bad - look, she isn't even scared! I thought that maybe there was some psychological point being made here, that a nearly-normal looking man could be so mentally scarred that he would THINK that he was hideous and hide himself away, but eventually I came to the conclusion that nothing so deep was being attempted. The actress just couldn't convey emotion.
Docteur Petiot (1990)
Compelling art film
I discovered this film after reading the book that inspired it. It is not a strictly biographical film; it is "loosely based" on the facts. But I found it a compelling and eerie exploration of evil and madness, and Michel Serrault gives an unforgettable performance as Dr. Petiot.
There are many memorable images in this movie; Petiot traveling through the night like a vampire, his black cloak flapping behind him, is almost iconic. There are also several touches of expressionism - Petiot's crooked silhouette mounting the stairs leading from the cellar where the butchered remains of his victims await cremation, reminds me of some scenes from 'Nosferatu'.
But I found the primary appeal of this movie to be aural. The soundtrack is loaded with ominous sounds, starting with the foreboding music of the opening credits, accompanied by wordless wailing. Petiot lives and runs his medical practice in a complex with many small shops, and there is a persistent background noise of knives being sharpened somewhere, as well as a peddler playing eerie tunes on a saw. There are animal noises as well - the concierge keeps a goat, unseen cats howl - and later in the film we see hapless cattle being herded through an underpass. The whole atmosphere is unsettling, with overtones of violence and slaughter.
Not only animals, but human voices are often heard - the screams of Gestapo victims, Petiot's patients in his waiting room, monitored by a listening device, just the same as the suspected collaborators after the war are monitored in their cells. Even the action of the film is often arranged so that we hear the voices of the participants without seeing them - when Petiot goes to see Mme Kern, we hear her singing as she works, her voice echoing in the theater, before we ever see her. And even when she does appear, she is often filmed from behind, her voice calling out to her husband, whose voice calls out to her in conversation. Disembodied voices echo in large halls, and their owners, when seen at all, are photographed at a distance, so we cannot actually see them speaking. This is a ghost story, and these are the voices of ghosts - many of them Petiot's future victims.
Yet Petiot himself is often only a voice; his frightening laughter echoes as he retreats from the camera, throwing comments behind him or into the air to nobody. In a way, he is as much a ghost as those he murders. He is always frantically busy, scurrying from appointment to appointment, never at rest. But his activity is that of a machine - lifeless and imperturbable. It is interesting that among all the horror and danger of occupied Paris, Petiot alone is unafraid; he is amused, enthusiastic, angry, irritated, contemptuous, but never afraid, unlike those real people he lures to their deaths. It is no surprise that he boasts of his mechanical inventions, including a perpetual motion machine (a true detail from the book - he did claim to have invented many machines); he is a sort of perpetual motion machine himself. And mechanical imagery is everywhere in the film, from the opening giant wheel in the movie house, to Petiot's bicycle (with its squeaking wheels echoing the sound of sharpening knives), to the Victrola he keeps winding up to play music before he makes a kill. Even his routine with his victims is mechanical - write a note to your wife, let me disguise you before you leave, you need a vaccination, Barcelona, Casablanca, Dakar - like a well-oiled machine, the routine is always the same, just as the record is always the same.
Maeder, the author, says that it was the clockwork perfection of his crimes that weighed so heavily against Petiot at his trial. His system was as smooth and efficient as a Nazi concentration camp, and this may be why the movie invents a subplot of Petiot's involvement with the French Gestapo and the occupying Nazis. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work as part of the story, because it's very hard to figure out just what Petiot is doing for the collaborators, or what is going on when he ends up at their headquarters in the middle of the night. Disposing of bodies? Hiding stolen goods? It's hard to say, and harder to believe; it's not likely the state would turn to a freelancer like Petiot.
But it does remind us of the duality of evil people; Petiot is a robber and a murderer, but he is also a devoted father and husband. Just as we learned that Hitler loved dogs, and that Nazis guilty of the worst war crimes could also be loving fathers and family men, so we have to recognize that Petiot could commit unspeakable horrors and yet also function normally. His insanity is easily camouflaged by the insanity and horror of the wartime situation in Paris; when killing, robbing and disappearing are happening all around, nobody pays attention as Petiot tosses more corpses on the pile.