Louis Malle’s debut feature film, made when he was just 25, has been given a recent airing as part of the Cine Lumiere’s French noir season.
The situation is promising: Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) and his lover Florence Carala (Jeanne Moreau) plot to kill her husband – his boss – one Saturday. He does the deed with a pistol and leaves the corpse looking like a suicide, but a moment of carelessness leads to him getting stuck in the office block’s lift after everyone else has gone home. While Florence wanders the streets of Paris in search of him, a younger couple, Louis and Veronique (Georges Poujouly and Yori Bertin), steal his car and end up committing two further murders. It’s the basis for a classic corkscrew noir tale, as the hand of fate descends upon Julien…
If only Malle had set out to make that film. Instead, he seems caught between the generic traditions honed in post-war US cinema and the urge to do something new. Shot in Paris on the brink of the ‘new’ French cinema, Ascenseur pour L’Echafaud feels like a Nouvelle Vague film in many ways: the location filming, the airy, moody detachment, the chic trappings (here it’s a sultry Miles Davis score), and yet it’s simply not perceived as belonging in the same pantheon of historic debuts as, say, Truffaut’s Les 400 Coups/The 400 Blows (1959) or Godard’s A Bout de Souffle/Breathless (1960). Rather than due to any critical or political factors of the time, I think this is more likely to be because it’s just not that good a movie.
Perhaps it’s because of the performances. Jeanne Moreau is supposed to be in love, and then devastated when she sees (or, rather, thnks she sees) her beloved driving of with another woman, and yet her expression fails to register this inner turmoil. Whereas she’s incandescent as Catherine in Jules et Jim (1961), she’s here muted to the point of indifference. Ronet should be a little bit more worked up than he is at the prospect of spending a night in a lift while the man he has killed awaits discovery upstairs; he smokes a lot, but lacks the engaging insolence of, say, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s performance in A Bout de Souffle. The younger couple are uninteresting and unmotivated (their approach to suicide being particularly prosaic), the police stock characters.
And, if this film wished to be something more obtuse than a standard noir tale, then it would have gained from a looser structure. It’s odd to find a movie that feels too short, but Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, dare I say it, feels like a truncated version of something far more well-developed. The scenes in which Moreau walks through the night-time city are where the movie is at its most poetic; more of that would have been good. But this is a film with four central characters and no easily identifiable core. As such, it’s hard to understand the perspective of the omniscient narration.
Maybe, though, one watches it now with the raised expectations that accompany debuts from French directors of this period. Malle made some fine films before his career was cut short upon his death from cancer in 1995 at the age of 63. Le Feu Follet (1963), Atlantic City (1981) and Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987) are the best ones, and even the much-reviled Damage (1992) has some good moments in its portrayal of the enigmatic power of passion. Ascenseur pour l’echafaud was an acceptable start, but Malle’s greatest films came much later.
Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud was showing as part of the French Noir season at the Ciné Lumiere (3rd July – 31st July 2003)