Spies in Black

Two French spy flicks — MATA HARI, AGENT H21 with Jeanne Moreau (!) and LE MONOCLE NOIR.

My model for this kind of thing is Clouzot’s LES ESPIONS, an existential/absurd nightmare of surveillance and menace, in which the entire population of the film is gradually replaced by secret agents. It’s like Ionesco or something. Doesn’t entirely work (abandoning the tight spatial constraints of the first two-thirds for a muddled climax feels like a desperate mistake), and its box office failure nearly killed Clouzot’s career, but it’s my starting point for thinking about French spies. This would seem grotesque to a French film buff, since the genre’s been such a popular and productive one across the channel.

I expected MATA HARI to be sheer nonsense, and it kind of is, but it’s highly entertaining nonsense. The director is Jean-Louis Richard, Moreau’s hubbie at the time, and actor and very occasional director. His final movie in that capacity was soft-core Milo Manara adaptation LE DECLIC (AKA CLICK!), which I’m ashamed to say I’ve actually seen. As one is used to saying of modern American blockbusters, “It’s not bad, for what it is.”

More intriguingly, the WWI romp (and the incongruence of that descriptor should clue you in to the kind of dissonance to expect) was co-produced and co-written by Francois Truffaut, who I guess had to eat. Truffaut is credited with dialogue, which I’m in no real position to judge, since he made the technical error of writing it in French, but his connection to the film also resulted in an eccentric cameo by Jean-Pierre Leaud, utterly pointless except for its sheer point-and-laugh entertainment value (think Belmondo in CASINO ROYALE) and a score by Georges Delerue.

Ah, Delerue! My Sansa Media Player (highly recommended) is stuffed with his film scores. He enhances the beauty and resonance of any film, even one as already heartbreaking as THE LONELY PASSION OF JUDITH HEARNE. Given a piece of dumb froth, he injects it with emotion… strikingly, while a film will be unbearable if it attempts to latch onto unearned emotion by hitching itself to some major issue or real-life tragedy (most commonly, the Holocaust), it can only benefit from a score that’s too beautiful. The movie really doesn’t merit such a lovely soundtrack, but it doesn’t cause any problems. Beautiful music, like beautiful photography, is never destructive as long as it’s used with taste.

The movie begins with Mata (agent H21 — presumably her predecessor, Agent H2O, was liquidated) doing her pseudo-Javanese nightclub act, in a diaphanous top. Richard tracks past audience members exchanging expository sound-bites of scene-setting, panning to the floor as the opening titles are sketched in. In the front row sit the real sketchers, artists and amateurs attempting to draw Mata as she dances. Except the last artist isn’t drawing, he’s just writing numbers. And then we realize that Mata’s exotic dance involves frequent and eleborate finger gestures, by which she’s signaling a coded message to the man with the pencil…

This sequence tells us several things: (1) The movie is cheerfully dumb and ahistorical (2) It’s inventive and cute (3) Jeanne Moreau will be showing her breasts. All of which are central to Richard’s purpose. In fact, they are Richard’s purpose.

Later, in a suspenseful bit, Moreau distracts Jean-Louis Trintignant while his valise is rifled, then falls in love with him. The WWI romantic stuff, complete with stock footage, recalls JULES ET JIM, arguably a mistake (Rule #1 is never remind the audience of a great film while making them watch a silly one).

Silly as it is, the movie is entertaining and occasionally exciting. The last third suffers from the unavoidable predictability: once we can see how Mata’s going to get caught, it’s a drag waiting for it to happen, and the final execution arrives none too soon. Bang! The abruption, simplicity and brutality of the slaughter is shocking and effective, the camera lingering a moment on the slumped corpse… and then Richard proves himself a true hack by dissolving to a slomo shot of Moreau et Trintignant romping in a field of long grass. He falls at the last hurdle, failing not only as a filmmaker but as a critic and audience of his own work — anybody can see that the ending was more striking and powerful without that bit of faux-impressionist cheese.

LE MONOCLE NOIR is from Georges Lautner, whose LA PASHA I semi-liked. This is maybe better: it has a definite style, that early sixties b&w expressionist noir look most commonly found in the German krimi. It avoids the flashy attempts to be with-it that seemed so jarring in PASHA. And indeed, LMN was so successful it spawned two sequels, both starring Paul Meurisse as the titular spy, known by his black monocle.

A disparate group of fascist conspirators are gathered in a chateau to await the arrival of a Martin Bormann type, a high-ranking Nazi escapee who’s supposedly going to lead their movement. But, in an echo of Clouzot’s headspinner, most of the cast are actually double agents, working for Russia, Germany and France. Meurisse has recognized his East German counterpart (Elga Andersen, voluptuous and saucy) and she has recognized him, but the Russian is unknown to both of them. This being a French movie with Nazi villains, the commie spies aren’t actually baddies, just additional counters on the board.

Rolly-polly drolerie from Bernard Blier (right).

The film has a certain sly drolerie, augmented by the presence of Bernard Blier as a small-town police chief: he also introduces the film, saying “Tonight, the secret agents will have no secrets from us. See you soon.” The charm is slightly marred by off-color jokes (Andersen: “Ever since the fall of Berlin, if I make love out of doors, I feel like I’m being raped.” A line even Tarantino might balk at) and tonal uncertainty — a genuinely gripping chase ends with a sympathetic character murdered, and the heroes expressing no emotional reaction. The movie could play its games much better if there were no innocent civilians in it at all.

Actually, that might be true in real life too, of all espionage, and all wars.

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12 Responses to “Spies in Black”

  1. “It was a foul, foul operation. But it’s paid off, and that’s the only rule.”

  2. You know, I’ve not yet seen a French spy film with a real LeCarre vibe. Les Espions comes closest, but it’s also kind or a paranoid-absurdist fantasy, with apocalyptic overtones. I would imagine there must be some good, dour French espionage flicks out there, they do gloomy so well!

  3. The best of the best French spy film is of course Eric Rohmer’s TRIPLE AGENT. Based on a real incident revolving around defeated White Russians in Paris. It’s kind of LeCarre-esque with its multiple factions only far more ambiguous and mysterious and distinctly Rohmeric.

    I think the spy film never took off in France because the French had Feuillade whose movies never fit in one genre of crime/fantasy and the like. So any attempt at trying to do it like the Anglo-Americans or the Germans(Lang who is a god in France) is bound to defeat expectations.

  4. David Boxwell Says:

    Love, love, LOVE the back-combed WWI beehive hairdos!

    Richard’s seems to exist for one main reason: “Hey, people, look at what I get to bang every night!”

    I hope to see it soon.

  5. Oh yeah, all the fashions are preposterous. Hair and makeup are slightly more anachronistic than everything else, as usual, but the dresses are pretty weird also.

    Look forward to seeing Triple Agent, maybe I need to have a Rohmer Week.

  6. Jean-Luc Godard called it a “strange film”(which coming from him is high praise) and marvelled that Rohmer was as interested in espionage as he was. Can’t believe I forgot LE PETIT SOLDAT, ALPHAVILLE, MADE IN USA(which refers to a real life espionage scandal – Ben Barka).

  7. I am in complete agreement with Arthur. “Triple Agent” is truly amazing. One of Rohmer’s greatest triumphs it’s exactly the sort of spy movie Hitchcock tried and failed to make with “Torn Curtain” and “Topaz.”

  8. My favorite Lautner is Icy Breasts

  9. TRIPLE AGENT also reminded me of other films set at the end of the 30s revolving around how political turmoil of the times foreshadowed or influenced the Gotterdamerung of WW2, specifically STAVISKY… and Joseph Losey’s Mexico set THE ASSASSINATION OF TROTSKY. All three films are based on real life events and Trotsky forms a subplot in the former film while the Hitler-Stalin pact is a key event in the Losey and Rohmer. The styles, as befitting the film-makers are different, but all three involve varieties of betrayal, among couples, and the woman ends up being exploited either by the men or by the state.

  10. The only copy of Icy Breasts that’s come my way was dubbed and pan-and-scanned, so I’ve refused to watch it. Maybe an improved one will appear.

    As I believe David E has said, Trotsky is passable up until the end, when it suddenly becomes quite brilliant.

  11. I thought it was great throughout. It’s maybe the best film ever made about a political assassination. It’s true to the facts but owing to Trotsky’s larger than life story(he fits Borges’ famous conundrum of “history copying history is strange enough, but history copying literature is just bizarre”) it becomes more and more enigmatic.

  12. The end is quite astonishing, producing the finest single acting moment of Alain Delon’s career.

    Romy Schneider is marvelous in it too. But then she was never less than marvelous.

    Triple Agent bears comparasion with Stavisky in that the wife of the scoundrel suffers disproportionately to her involvement in her husbands crimes. In Rohmer’s film she’s entirely unaware of them, or anything else about what her husband does froa living, being a VERY “traditional” wife — always sure to leave the room when the men start to talk amongst themselves. And being spies they often do.

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