Writer-director Pascal Bonitzer’s third feature was given relatively short shrift when released theatrically in the UK, and though it would be too great a charge to accuse the British critics of criminal neglect (a crime of which they are nonetheless frequently guilty) Petites Coupures does offer up enough pleasures to hope that its issue on DVD yields a more positive reception. Bonitzer is a former editor of Cahiers du Cinéma, and so it is perhaps apt that it is to Hitchcock, the director whose reputation Cahiers helped establish, that his latest work is most obviously indebted.
Returning to the combination of rakish charisma and shabby, two-timing loserdom with which he established his reputation, Daniel Auteuil plays Bruno, a middle-aged Parisian journalist for Humanité who clings vaguely to his communist beliefs whilst his personal life crumbles all around him. Torn between his wife (Emmanuelle Devos) and his young mistress, Nathalie (the perennially alluring Ludivine Sagnier), Bruno reluctantly responds to a call from Gérard (veteran actor Jean Yanne in one of his last screen performances), an elderly uncle fighting for re-election as communist mayor of a small town near Grenoble.
Shortly after arriving at the rambling rural residence Bruno rows with the precocious Nathalie and she flees with Gérard’s young son, Simon (Jeremie Lippman). Thereafter, another reason for Bruno’s visit evolves and he is swiftly despatched in a barely functioning Lada (a gently comic touch given the protagonist’s political leanings) armed with a handgun to deliver a letter to Verekher (Hanns Zischler), an ailing rival taken as a lover by Gérard’s wife, the icily enigmatic Béatrice (Kristin Scott Thomas). As an attraction between Bruno and Béatrice tentatively develops (true to Hitchcockian form Béatrice vacillates between vamp and would-be criminal) further romantic entanglements, acts of aggression, a near fatal shooting and run-in’s with other political activists ensue.
The title of the film refers to the minor, mutilating wounds Bruno is repeatedly forced to endure either at his own hand or as a consequence of violent actions taken by others. At the start of the film Bruno dramatically slices his finger in order to distract his wife from leaving him for the refuge of Turin and later, before fleeing Grenoble in a fit of pique at being labelled an ‘airhead’, Nathalie smartly bites him. These petites coupures are just one of a number of motifs – a ring that passes from hand to hand, the gun Bruno passes to another man and with which he is himself later shot – that playfully recur throughout to suggest the breakdown of relationships and perhaps love in bad faith. A prominent theme of the film, Bonitzer also, if perhaps less skilfully but no less equally light heartedly, concerns himself with the Parisian intellectual milieu (the backdrop for his earlier Rien sur Robert) and the frustrations of France’s left-wing liberal intelligentsia.
Despite the material’s relative lack of originality – the angst of the ever-reliable staple the male mid-life crisis is however entertainingly mined – Petites Coupures endures largely through the uniformly excellent performances. As already highlighted, Auteuil is back to something approaching his best and actually contributes a performance whilst Scott Thomas dazzles and beguiles in an all French language role. The supporting players also shine, as illustrated by the perfectly executed opening scene in which Bruno’s wife and lover unwittingly meet and exchange lipstick. Another major plus is Godard collaborator William Lubtchansky’s crisp, luminous cinematography, which beautifully captures the wintry, snow-sprinkled locations, themselves a perfect metaphor for the unthawed emotions contained herein.
As ever with all Artificial Eye releases, the DVD is tastefully presented and the transfer faultless. There’s the obligatory cast and crew filmographies and theatrical trailers as extras but rather more enticing and illuminating is the attendant ‘making of’ documentary by Augustin Viatte in which Bonitzer reveals that the starting inspiration for the script were the opening lines from Dante’s The Divine Comedy.