Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 12, 2006 10:21 pm 
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Judging by his bestseller Classe de neige (Class Trip), made into a film by Claude Miller, Emmanuel Carrère deals exclusively, and effectively, in the anguished confusion of reality and nightmare. La Moustache, a twenty-year-old novel by Carrère adapted by him in his first direction of a fiction film, bears out this analysis. La Moustache is about Marc Thiriez (Vincent Lindon), a well-off architect with loving wife Agnès (Emmanuelle Devos), who finds himself becoming invisible, and then sees his life itself disappear. He runs away, and then finds himself again, but the terror remains that normality will never be anything but provisional from now on.

Massimo Bontempelli once wrote a story called “La Barba” (The Beard). In it the devil comes to torment a man named Federico by asking him if he sleeps with his magnificent beard over or under the covers. He can’t remember. The question so torments Federico that he has his barber shave off his beard – and he’s a ruined man without it.

Ruination creeps up more subtly for Marc, but starting from a similar source. One night before going out to see friends for dinner he decides to surprise his wife by shaving off his moustache. He asks her and she says why not. But then neither she nor his friends Serge (Matthieu Amalric) and Samira (Cylia Malki) notice it’s gone. (The social evening is encapsulated in a scene of Serge telling a story, and as in Haneke’s Caché this conveys a sense of bourgeois helplessness and confinement, as well as repressed hostility.) Marc calls Agnès’ attention to her oversight, and as they drive home she insists he never had a moustache. He flies into a rage, and she acts as if he’s become dangerous. He thinks he’s the victim of a hoax, and in days that follow snapshots from a vacation several years ago show the moustache, as does his passport, but no one notices it’s gone at work either.

The story thus hovers at first between a sort of existential study of modern identity, and creeping paranoia. The film is full of brooding intensity and has an obsessive focus that’s heightened by repeated use of a 23-minute Philip Glass violin concerto that’s both hypnotic and irritating.

Marc becomes increasingly disturbed and his wife suggests he needs therapy. He is in agreement and can’t see someone soon enough. At the same time he remains angry. The marriage seemed comfortable and loving. Now the husband is resentful and the wife is frightened and eager to take measures to help Marc but also protect herself. The story carries conviction because Vincent Lindon, an excellent actor, is well cast. Though he has skillfully played a transvestite (in Jacquot’s École de la chair/School of Flesh), he conveys the sense of being a man’s man, a solid, sane sort of person who wouldn’t be prone to hysteria or whims. We sympathize with him and feel his growing unease, even terror. This is heightened because everything is strictly from his point of view.

Eventually Marc hears his wife talking on the phone, apparently arranging to have him carted off to a mental institution, and he flees into a driving rain. He’s also been told that his father is dead, and when he takes a taxi, he can’t remember where his parents live and he grew up. Before long he’s at the airport booking a flight to Hong Kong. From here we’re in Marc’s world of flight, possibly madness. If Wong Kar Wai were at the helm once Hong Kong heaves into view at least the visuals would have become kaleidoscopic and dreamlike. But that isn’t Carrère’s method and would be unsuitable to his purpose. We have to feel that things may be quite ordinary, but also terrifying. The frantic pace continues and Marc’s actions become increasingly numb, compulsive, and repetitious, but the world around him is nerve-jangling and ordinary, not beautiful.

There are no flaws in Carrère’s method and his actors are exceptional: Lindon is the consummate professional, Devos is always interesting, Amalric is fine, if a bit wasted here. What has to be said is that there is never any resolution of the mystery. Why did all this have to happen? Did it happen? We never know. Those who want neat resolution will leave this film unsatisfied. Carrère deals in a kind of post-Hitchcockian suspense, where the final explanation is missing. He has substituted his original Dostoevskian finale with something mellower; in the Rendez-Vous Q&A at Lincoln Center he said dramatically ending one’s life seemed an attractive idea back in his younger days when he wrote the book, but now he’s much more interested in figuring out how to make a relationship last. And of course that’s one thing the story is about: the non-communication of couples. The film has intensity, but its concept is so simple that it tends to make one feel rather than think. The focus is admirable, the emotional impact of the film is solid and strong, but the complexity that could be conveyed in a novel are missing. This is efficient, but not subtle, filmmaking.

(Shown in the March 2006 Rendez-Vous with French Cinema Today at Lincoln Center, La Moustache opened in Paris July 6, 2005, and will be a Cinema Guild Release in the US.)

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