Friday, July 08, 2005

A Review of Elevator to the Gallows

Alright, so, like, Louis Malle is supposed to be great, right? Am I crazy or is that what people say? Someone stop me if that’s not what people say, but if that is what people say then they must have lost their damn noodles. Now, I've only seen two of his films, but that’s enough to make me wonder what the hell is going on that anybody thinks this guy is great. I saw Zazie dans le Metro, a supposed masterpiece, a couple of years ago. I thought Zazie dans le Metro was a humorless and irritating piece of junk, but I was willing to let that be in the past. Last night Elevator to the Gallows was playing at the Landmark Sunshine in New York City. I was ready to give Louis another shot.

I’ll say this: Elevator to the Gallows is better than Zazie Dans la Metro. But not by much. We learn at the beginning of the film that a pair of lovers, played by Jeanne Moreau and Maurice Ronet, are plotting to kill the Moreau’s husband. Ronet is going to do it and he’s supposed to make it look like a suicide. Of course it gets botched and one complication leads to another.

Things do seem to start out on the right foot. The score is all Miles Davis, we’re seeing Paris of the 1950s in black and white, and there’s some pretty cool zooms as the lovers talk on the phone. At first I was so charmed by these nice accoutrements that I failed to notice sloppy filmmaking when I saw it.

As the film progressed I started to get wise. I started to notice glaring plot holes, murky (at best) character motivation, crappy sound design, and inept shot selection in several key scenes. I refuse to believe, as some might assert in response to my complaints, that this film is a victim of its era. I'm tired of people forgiving a film's shortcomings because of when it was made. I'll give a film a break in the case of pure lack of technology or film language, but hell, The Passion of Joan of Arc came out in 1928 and it's crafted better than 99% of films made today. So I'm not buying it. Elevator to the Gallows is bad filmmaking.

One of the problems is that Malle tries to balance a meditation on loneliness and desperation with a whole army of farfetched plot devices. At one moment we’re drifting through the streets of Paris as Moreau wanders around in a haze of existential gloom and in another we’re supposed to accept that Ronet would leave a camera filled to the brim with damning evidence on the seat of his running car while he goes to grab something he forgot.

Worse than the plot holes are characters who seem completely inhuman. We’re supposed to empathize with people who are so stupid, so rash, and so selfish that I can’t view them as anything more than slaves to the script and its need to move the plot forward. For example, a pair of characters steal a car in broad daylight, and not just any car, but a car that belongs to Ronet who works across the street and sees them every day. And why? Because, apparently, they just feel like it. And how? Well, see, Ronet left his car with the engine running. So they steal it and then they just feel like engaging in a high speed race with some German tourists. At this point I guess they figure why the hell not. You gotta do what you feel man, especially if doing it will help to contrive a totally ridiculous mix-up that will come into play later in the movie. What really perplexes me is that I think this story is ultimately supposed to be a human tragedy, but these people not only behave unsympathetically, they behave unlike any human over the age of five.

Yet another problem is haphazard camera direction. There are some moments of beautifully loose contemplative camerawork that reminds you that the French new wave is just around the corner, but for the most part the camera is either moving seemingly just for the hell of it, or else it is oddly static. And before anyone gets upset let me mention that I love (for example) Ozu’s camera direction, but trust me, this is not that kind of static. This is the kind of static that makes you feel like Malle couldn’t come up with anything better. The whole thing, now that I think of it, seems like Malle couldn’t come up with anything better and so he went with whatever he had.

All this adds up to a frustrating experience. That’s not to say there aren’t a couple good moments to be found in Elevator to the Gallows. The Miles Davis score is fantastic, if not used to its fullest potential. Some of the wanderings around Paris are interesting, and there is a moment or two where the actors break through the confines of the script. But it’s not worth it. The good parts just make it all the more maddening that this movie is so bad.

Grade: D+

-Aaron

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