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The full French title of the film known to American art-house patrons as Amélie translates as The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain, which is both a homage to an old Sacha Guitry picture and also an inadvertent statement of Gallic cinema’s recent disposition. French movies lately are full of fabulous destinies, and not only when Audrey Tautou is on screen. In the absence of overarching meaning, recent French films (and such American counterparts as Magnolia and Thirteen Conversations About One Thing) celebrate random, perhaps serendipitous connections. Everything in this world fits together, even if it doesn’t make sense.
Actually, 30-year-old writer-director Delphine Gleize’s first feature (which won the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes) does make a certain kind of sense: visual. The elaborately plotted and deftly assembled Carnage is a delight to watch, even if its web of fateful, flamenco-scored strands doesn’t prove profound. Blood-dark and yet almost comical in structure, the movie could be called Amélie Goes to the Abattoir. Beginning with a young bullfighter in southern Spain and a 5-year-old girl in northern Francewho are united by satellite TV and a shared taste for pink tightsGleize develops an intricate pattern of physical entanglements. When the bullfighter is gored and the bull is killed, the pieces of the latter’s carcass are dispersed to a chef, a taxidermist, a scientist, and a Great Dane. The people somehow linked by these bits of bull are themselves pieces of meat, beings whose corporeality is emphasized by a variety of medical or reproductive circumstances.
Only a few deaths are depicted in Carnage, and only one of those is of a human being, yet the film is not for the squeamish. In addition to a butcher shop, the film visits a couple of operating rooms, a bull ring, and a swimming pool, where a class of naked middle-aged questers seeks a kind of amniotic equanimity. (Gleize may reveal her own bloody limits when she declines to follow one character into a birthing room for a delivery of quintuplets.) The featured players include an Italian aspiring actress (Chiara Mastroianni) who’s having all her moles removed, a medical researcher (Jacques Gamblin) who could hardly be more detached from the science project that is his in-vitro-fertilized wife (Lio), and 5-year-old Winnie (Raphaëlle Molinier), an epileptic whose perception of life’s strangeness surpasses that of her parents and kindergarten teacher.
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Some of the characters’s stories are slight, and the film’s concluding cavalcade of images seems overreaching and empty. Still, Carnage doesn’t simply follow the food chain from a bullring in Spain to a hypermarket in Lille. Relationships between parent and child are central to most of the interlocking episodes: Winnie’s teacher (Lucia Sanchez) can’t understand why her childhood seems a mystery to her own mother (Angela Molina); the taxidermist (Bernard Sens) wonders if his mother (Esther Gorintin) has told the truth about the father he doesn’t remember; the young bullfighter (Julien Lescarret) is drawn to the arena where his father died; and the actress worries that in removing her moles she’s banishing her father’s legacy. With all these sinewy intergenerational connections, you have to wonder if there’s any room in Gleize’s universe for people who aren’t linked by blood.
Fittingly, when the film finds a physical cause for the bull’s actions, that cause turns on vision. Carnage was vividly shot by cinematographer Crystel Fournier, and its most cogent sequences take fluid pictorial leaps from one story to another. Indeed, the movie is worth seeing just for the astonishingand best left undescribedmoment when Winnie, the bullfighter, the bull, the Great Dane, and the uptight-adult worldview of Winnie’s teacher all overlap. Like so many contemporary cinematic spinners of fate, Gleize may not have much of a point. But she sure has a lot to show for it.
Like Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur, which was released just a year later, Touchez Pas au Grisbi opens with an establishing shot of Montmartre, then introduces its courtly protagonist. Jacques Becker’s 1954 underworld film immediately seems stodgier than Melville’san impression its first half-hour does nothing to alter. Max (Jean Gabin in a comeback role) is a regular at certain restaurants and clubs, frequently in the company of his longtime palaccomplice, technicallyRiton (René Dary). Max knows a lot of women, all of whom find him charming, but he doesn’t care too much for any of them. (Among the actresses playing Max’s playmates are Marilyn Buferd, who had been Miss America eight years before, and a woman willing to be called Dora Doll.) Riton, however, is overly fond of his frequent companion, coke-sniffing nightclub dancer Josy (a pre-stardom Jeanne Moreau). He’s told her about his and Max’s big score, which Becker has already introduced, quite casually, with a glimpse of a newspaper headline: Someone has managed to steal gold bullion worth 50 million francs from Orly Airport.
The someones are Max and Riton, of course, but Max is not the sort of guy to brag. He has the gold bars stashed somewhere safe, and he has no intention of moving them until the robbery is largely forgotten. (Touchez Pas au Grisbi means “Don’t touch the loot.”) But Josy has blabbed to her other lover, drug dealer Angelo (venerable Franco-Italian tough guy Lino Ventura in his first acting job). Max outflanks Angelo and his hoods for a time, but they manage to snatch Riton. When Angelo demands the gold in exchange for his friend, Max recruits a few cohorts and breaks out the heavy munitions. In addition to being much cooler than his antagonist, Max is also smarter. Still, his counterattack doesn’t end exactly as hoped.
Although Touchez Pas au Grisbi’s climax features what at the time was a positively American level of violencegrenades!the movie is not as harsh as the Hollywood noirs that influenced it. What’s at stake in the storywhich Becker and co-writers Maurice Griffe and Albert Simonin changed substantially from Simonin’s more procedural 1953 best selleris simply Max’s genteel, comfortable retirement. Max is a charmer, but the film carefully observes how much of his appeal has to do with money. A big tipper in a Paris still recovering from World War II, the impeccably tailored thief endears himself with such tactics as overpaying for a brandy he never touches (which is promptly poured back into the bottle when he leaves). Without any loot to spread around, Max would be just another old-timer.
Becker, whose career was interrupted by the war and ended by an early death, was not a flashy director. Touchez Pas au Grisbi has some playful bits, notably Max’s insistence on playing “his song” wherever he goes, and its wry attention to such details of bourgeois-thug life as pajamas and toothbrushes. Although new subtitles better convey the dialogue’s pungency, the film lacks the brashness that Melville and, a few years later, Godard and Truffautbrought to the Gallic gangster flick. In concentrating on the aftermath of a heist, Becker was a step ahead of Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 The Killing, which inspired such latter-day noirs as Reservoir Dogs. What most distinguishes the film, however, is not its prescience but its shellshocked ambience. A decade after Paris was liberated, Becker cared less about the big battle than the weariness that follows. CP