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IT'S REALLY 'Not So Bad as All That.' The English title of Claude Goretta's latest film, that is. And the character of the thieving Pierre. And maybe bourgeois life in general. With the idea that "an individual is always more complex than he appears," Goretta adapted a quaint newspaper clipping about a furniture maker who starts robbing banks, post offices, and train stations because he can't afford to pay his employees (devoted to wood, he's being beaten in the market by the manufacturers of plastics) into a film that is more complex than its unostentatious style would indicate. Beneath the country picnics, the tender-funny lovemaking, the man who robs a bank with a bandage on his nose and a single bullet in his gun, Goretta raises questions about the tenuous nature of our expectations, the impossibility of accomplishment in a money-oriented world, the reasons why we love. The film is quiet and subtle, shot in flat monotones of green and brown. It is unpretentious, yet not dull, and very intelligent.
Pierre, the main character in Pas si Mechant que ca (or The Wonderful Crook as its American promoters have inadequately dubbed it) looks strong, clumsy and dumb--like the stereotypical college football star. The opening sequences of the film cut from a shot of Pierre armwrestling with his fellow workers to one of the boss yelling because Pierre is "always playing around" and has lacquered a board that should have remained natural. So, when the foreman calls for Pierre we expect he will be reprimanded and find out instead that the boss is, in fact, Pierre's father, and that Pierre has been called because his father has just taken ill. In one short scene the clowning child-man has taken on the responsibility of an invalid parent and of a business in the red.
Once in charge of the factory, Pierre is forced to lead a double existence. On the surface he is a no-more-than-ordinarily troubled businessman with a pleasant, middle-class wife who bends and stretches in the morning so she'll still look acceptable in ten or twenty years, conscientiously takes the Pill, learns Spanish from a record, and with whom he cannot share his problems. Donning a beret and mounting a motorbike, Pierre cuts through the distinctive patches of gold and green that mark the Swiss countryside and becomes a hero in the style of Robin Hood. He is the crook who steals in the interest of his employees, possessing a tremendous sense of generosity, however vague and misdirected.
Pierre can feel that something is wrong and needs changing, yet he doesn't quite know how to go about effecting that change. There is a wonderful irony in his choice to take the law into his own hands by staging hold-ups. The joke becomes funnier still when Pierre meets his mistress, Nelly, while trying to rob the post office where she is employed. She faints. He slaps some life back into her and later calls to apologize for the whole incident.
Mistress, while technically the right word to describe Nelly's relationship to Pierre, implies a love more passionate and unethical than that which truly characterizes their affair. Nelly's eyes aren't quite straight, she's free but realizes that that "doesn't necessarily mean sleeping with everybody" and she believes that to love means to notice someone else's problems. She understands the side of Pierre that his wife has never seen and thus serves a need, not a passion.
Passion does exist, however. It lies nervously beneath the surface of Pierre's every glance and gesture, waiting to burst into violent action, though it rarely does. Goretta is more interested in the checks on animality, in the resonances that emanate from Pierre's life of thieving, than in the robberies themselves. Only when playing with his baby in a wild, almost frighteningly erotic state, do Pierre's instincts seem untamed. Only when he talks of wood do we realize the strength of their potential power.
For wood is Pierre's real mistress, that thing for which he has challenged the law. Wood that lives and breathes, that squeaks and cracks in the beams of his house, that must be sacrificially burnt in the shape of old furniture that will not sell. Wood stands as a monument in the countryside, whether in the form of a massive tree or in tiny specks of black charcoal. Pierre loves it, is fascinated by the intricacies of its design, the grain that is smooth to the touch, in a way that he never has been by a woman's body. He broods over a glass of fizzling alka-seltzer about the use of plastics. "Soon wood will exist only in film."
Film lives and preserves and Goretta is consciously paying tribute to it. Through allusions to Godard's Pierrot Le Fou (Pierre's wife tells him "sometimes I think you're crazy") and to Chabrol ("are you frightened? Do you think I'll strangle you?") Goretta places himself in the tradition of modern French, not Swiss, filmmakers. He is certainly more subtle and less pretentious than Alain Tanner, though as yet he has not been as widely received in this country. Perhaps sufficient interest will be stirred by this film to prompt more screenings of his first two features, Le Fou (1970) and The Invitation (1972).
The same principles which organize the themes of the film (the unreliability of appearances, the danger of predetermined values, anticipation turned on its head) also structure the arrangement of shots. Goretta falsifies not only our narrative expectations, but our aesthetic ones as well.
Goretta's manipulation of shots is very sophisticated, relying most heavily on foreshortening and surprising juxtaposition. The single partially telling image followed by the truly telling one, is one of Goretta's favorite ways of playing games with our illusions and expectations. Thus Goretta can give us the essentials of action in a scene that is pared down to two single shots. A procession of people in black pass by and we think Pierre's father has died. In the next shot he sits quietly in his wheelchair. Pierre's wife is always riding her bicycle backwards. Only at the children's benefit do we understand why.
EVEN MORE EVOCATIVE are those progressions of shots with which Goretta establishes the rhythms of the film. The increasing tempo of excitement is matched by tighter, more frequent cutting. Scenes alternate from light to dark. A solitary tree stands still in a haunting though brightly lit field. Bits of broken chairs, marred by flame, are discerned in the warm earth-tones of a neglected garbage heap. A light flashes on a bank window. Nelly stands across the street by a bicycle. When Pierre dashes out we realize the two have become accomplices.
The Wonderful Crook evokes a feeling for the complexity of human behavior without resorting to cliche or to the overdramatic drawn out dialogues that belong on the stage, not on the screen. It presents a picture of bourgeois life that ultimately is dark, though not without hope, and certainly not without mystery and adventure.
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