It's awfully hard to feel sorry for a man who disembowels little girls. In fact, Director Bertrand Tavernier's new film, The Judge and The Assassin, unwittingly reveals just how impossible this feat of emotional empathy is. The horror of the crime repells us; we are haunted by the image of our own face screaming in the last minutes of life. A Theodore Bundy-style murder dehumanizes the victim, turning a person into an object. Horrified yet fascinated, we devour the newspaper clippings; each gruesome detail imprints itself on our memory. We become transfixed by the terrifyingly personal nature of random death--the element of chance strips us of all defenses. As a result, any film which tries to minimize the enormity of the crime must fail.
Surrounded by talented actors, blessed with a master cinematographer and given a fascinating story, The Judge and The Assassination seems to have all the makings of an outstanding film. Unfortunately, Tavernier loses his nerve when the real dimensions of the psychological theme loom before him. Rummaging through the props closet of King of Hearts and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Tavernier merely dusts off a confusing collection of cliches. Most of the film has an aura of impenetrable mystery overlaid with a veneer of hastily added political significance. The whole production reeks of a talented artist lost in the complexities of a difficult subject. As the film progresses. The subterfuges that Tavernier resorts to become embarrasingly obvious.
The subject attempted would present problems to the most experienced and brilliant of film makers. The Judge and the Assassin traces the last years of one Joseph Bouvier, (Michel Galabru) a dismissed French sergeant turned hobo.
Tavernier attempts to explore the concept of madness through Bouvier's experience as a social outcast yet the character is never clarified. Tavernier dredges up the usual socio-economic sludge but he leaves it unexplained; was Bouvier raped by monks, did the rabid dog truly bite him, was he mistreated in the hospital, was he even crazy before he shot Louise and put two bullets in his own head? These questions do not provoke thoughtful analysis into the very nature and definition of madness but rather confuse and eventually annoy the audience. If Bouvier was a lovable fool, dispensing wisdom in nonsense, perhaps one could accept this non-clarification as an indictment of our rigid society. But Bouvier is no gentle Aesop. Tramping from village to village with his accordion, he stops at various points to rape and dismember twelve children.
Lyrical murders? When Bouvier begins to kill, The Judge and The Assassin becomes utterly incomprehensible. Tavernier's presentation of these gruesome murders has an appalling pastoral charm; the young victims lie asleep in their blood, their lamb-like eyes closed forever. Little ugliness or real violence sullies the screen; death comes amid aerial shots of southern France and the lyrical song of birds.
Tavernier is utterly unable to reconcile his vision of Bouvier as society's victim and the audience's gut response to these atrocities. His attempt to weasel out of providing firm answers by "prettying up" these murders verges on the immoral. To kill young children is a heinous crime and no amount of earlier abuse can explain it away.
However, one part of the film succeeds brilliantly, mostly through the superb performance of Phillipe Noiret as Rousseau, Bouvier's presiding judge. Despite some heavy handed parallels between the two men such as their shared penchant for sodomy and red heads, Noiret lifts his character out of the prevailing "the straights are just as crazy" mold and gives life to this balding judge who still lives at home with his exquisite, adored Maman. Noiret captures the fierce ambition of Rousseau; he yearns for that Legion of Honor medal with all the intensity of a good schoolboy who wants to please his mother.
The Judge and The Assassin ends with a cinematic non sequitur; a strike breaks out in a never-before-mentioned-factory, Isabelle Huppert, last seen as the sodomized mistress of Rousseau, now appears as an aspiring diva, singing Bouvier's favorite ballad-off-key, and the entire striking mob is bathed in a Hallmark card glow. The police prepare to shoot and the screen goes black as these significant words appear: "in the year that Joseph Bouvier killed twelve children, 16,000 died in the mines of France." Both facts are terrible; is Tavernier suggesting that Bouvier should not have been prosecuted since his tally was so small? The obscurity of its ending truly symbolizes the confusion and abysmal failure of The Judge and the Assassin.