A Man Called MacGuffin
A movie that starts on my birthday!
THE RIDER ON THE RAIN (in French, the equally alliterative LE PASSAGER DE LA PLUIE, 1970) began the last phase of René Clément’s career, the twisty thriller circle (though this is clearly anticipated in earlier movies like LES FELINS and PLEIN SOLEIL). The large-scale failure of IS PARIS BURNING? (which I like a lot — but you have to see it in subtitled, not dubbed, form) effectively closed the door on period movies for the director and he plunged whole-heartedly into the Now, with stylish seventies crime films, both this and LA COURSE DU LIEVRE A TRAVERS LES CHAMPS stemming from the pen of Sebastien Japrisot, that master of the insanely convoluted, switchback narrative.
Both films open with quotes from Lewis Carroll, which I think is more of a Japrisot trope than a Clément one, though the director’s fascination with childhood is a recurring motif, and he DID make a film called KNAVE OF HEARTS (more commonly known as MONSIEUR RIPOIS). The opening shot here seems to be a river, surface momentarily cratered with raindrops, until a bus drives through and we realize it’s a wet road — thus preparing us for whatever fantastical transformations M. Japrisot has in store.
Our star is petite Marlene Jobert, with her adorable sprinkle of freckles and appealingly odd voice — surprisingly, she’s the real life mother of Eva Green. Jobert’s husband must have had massive tits. Jobert’s character rejoices in the name of Melancolie Mound, but get your sniggering over with because this is serious stuff — her character is horribly abused by all the men in the film, and her mother isn’t that sympathetic either. The intense bouts of psychological torture dissolve away in an oddly sweet ending, played out by Francis Lai’s hip, lachrymose soundtrack.
The story proper begins when Jobert is raped by a terrifying, masked bald guy (disturbing male-pattern baldness that gives him an alien look — his name will turn out to be MacGuffin or MacGuffyn), and then kills him when he threatens her again. She disposes of the body, but then Charles Bronson shows up — yes, Charles frickin’ Bronson! — as a mysterious stranger whose hot on the trail of the loot her assailant had stolen (a paltry $60,000 — Bronson wouldn’t even get out of bed and spray himself with Mandom for that, surely?). Jobert’s struggle with her walnut-faced interrogator brings out her inner strength and the audience pleasure comes from seeing her fight back, growing up and standing up for herself. The sheer unpleasantness of every male character feels like a feminist point sometimes, but then the Stockholm Syndrome romance kicks in and we’re not so sure.
French trailer gives a pretty fair idea of the movie’s mood — more melancholic and mysterious than action-packed or horrific.
The US trailer is farcically dishonest, painting Bronson as a rescuer rather than what he really is for most of the film, a threat. It also commits the unpardonable sin of threatening its audience with sexual assault, which doesn’t strike me as a formula for success. The connection of Bronson with rape would be cemented by DEATH WISH in 1974 — I’m wondering if this trailer was made for a later release, capitalizing on the idea of Bronson as vigilante protector? The irony is that Mr. Buchinsky looks more like the kind of stereotypical car-park lurker than most of the “street trash” he summarily executed. But I think this worked in his favour: the rape-rescue fantasy is a kind of rape fantasy in disguise: the attraction is sexual threat safely neutralised/alibied.
Anyway, Clément uses Bronson neither as sexual bully nor rescuer, but as a mysterious, tormenting authority figure — given scenarist Japrisot’s propensity for mad plot turns, I even wondered momentarily if either Bronson or the dead rapist might be a hallucination. The narrative is just elusive enough for that to be a possibility.
Clément, determined not to seem old-fashioned, directs the hell out of this, an object lesson in what David Bordwell calls “intensified continuity,” with Dutch tilts, handheld lurches, zooms and propulsive tracking shots, swoony focus pulls and every kind of fancy-schmancy Sid Furie composition, filming through foreground objects as if cameraman Andréas Winding (PLAYTIME) were hiding from the authorities while shooting the picture.
It’s twisted and peculiar — naturally I loved it. For whatever reason, despite the international stars in his later films, Clément’s career fizzled out during the seventies, and he spent the last twenty-fur years of his life not making any films.
My Paris pal Lenny Borger interviewed Francois Truffaut one time, and the former critic repeated his dislike of Clément’s work in general and FORBIDDEN GAMES in particular. But then he called up and asked Lenny not to print the bits where he badmouthed his fellow director: “He’s having trouble getting films made.” Lenny doesn’t know if that was sincere concern or just Truffaut trying to look like a nice guy, but it’s a decent gesture either way.
The odd thing about Truffaut is that his French Occupation drama, LE DERNIER METRO, which was showered with awards in France, is a rather stodgy, old-fashioned affair, the kind of thing Clément would have turned into a taut, dynamic, visually sensational thriller-melodrama, and I believe even if he’d made it when he was seventy-seven, it would have looked like a young man’s film.