The Sweet But No Less Poignant Comedy Of Claude Goretta’s 1975 Film, “Pas si Mechant Que Ca” (The Wonderful Crook)

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Gerard Depardieu In The Wonderful Crook

When thinking about Switzerland’s contribution to the thriving period of European 1970s filmmaking, two names immediately spring to mind; Alain Tanner and the director of the film I will be writing about today, Claude Goretta. Both internationally celebrated filmmakers, these two talented auteurs made their directorial debut together in the 1957 documentary entitled “Nice Time” about the then seedy area known as Piccadilly Circus in London, but since that effort, they have diverged in styles dramatically. As Alain Tanner’s films are usually presented in a dire stark reality with a clear political message; Goretta’s early work is more or less presented in a delicate comedic fashion, with its overall message being no less politically charged and socially conscious as Tanner’s work. After the comedic brilliance of his 1973 Cannes Grand Jury Prize winning film, “The Invitation,” Goretta returned in 1975 and delivered the understated gem, “The Wonderful Crook.”

Pierre (Gerard Depardieu) is living the good life. He’s a married father of one, who barely puts in a day of work at his father’s handmade furniture factory, and wants for very little, living in his seemingly idyllic country town. One day when his father has a stroke, Pierre must assume control of the business and immediately discovers that the factory is steadily dying because no one wants pay for the expertly made furniture they produce anymore. Pierre doesn’t tell a soul about the failing business and responds as any good slacker would, by picking up a gun and robbing banks and postal shops. With his newly acquired gains, Pierre doesn’t try to upgrade his factory for the modern world; instead, he just creates fake orders for furniture for imaginary clients, furniture that he then burns at the dump as to not raise suspicions at the factory or at home with his adoring wife.

At home, it’s business is usual, Pierre plays with his child (played by Gerard’s actual son, the late Guilliame Depardieu) and makes love to his wife Marthe (Dominique Labourier) seemingly without an ounce of guilt for what he has done, but the eventual guilt manifests itself after a failed robbery at a stamp shop where a lovely clerk named Nelly (another excellent performance from Marlene Jobert from Maurice Pialat’s “We Won’t Grow Old Together”) faints after Pierre fires his one bullet into a lamp that is usually meant to “make an impression.”

Pierre then becomes somewhat obsessed with Nelly, or to be more exact, Nelly despite her strong objections at first, becomes the one person he (Pierre) feels the need to apologize to for his wrongdoings, and the one person whom he can tell of the reasoning as to why he needs to be a thief. Goretta smartly leaves open the possibilities of why Pierre confides in Nelly and also why Nelly becomes involved with Pierre’s mission. Nelly resembles Pierre’s wife Marthe, both waifish redheads, which may explain Pierre’s fascination with her, but for Nelly, is it physical attraction for Pierre? Is it sympathy or a longing for a thrill? Or is it just the case of two people who have people who love them, but feel the need for more? It’s clear here that paradise is never is as perfect as people perceive it on the surface. A key to this facade of paradise and the breaking of the myth might be contained in an early scene in which locals at a pub brutishly mock an Italian immigrant for dancing with a vase of flowers to impress a pretty woman. What might be seen in a Rohmer film as a classic moment of French romance, Goretta cleverly distorts in order to make clear that the definition of traditional love in a changing world is vanishing in the same way that the old world craftsmanship found in the furniture that Pierre must now burn to keep up the facade.

Gerard And His Infant Son Guilliame In The Wonderful Crook

With its superb acting, script, and mostly favorable reviews, it is a somewhat surprising that “The Wonderful Crook” has not survived the test of time. This may be credited to the letdown that occurs when a director tries to follow up a hugely celebrated hit such as “The Invitation,” leaving audiences hoping for another masterpiece, but I feel that it is mostly due to the fact that “The Wonderful Crook” was released the same year as another, more sexually audacious Gerard Depardieu film in which he plays a thief, Barbet Schroeder’s, “Maitresse,” which attracted worldwide curiosity for its depiction of fetishistic sexuality, eventually propelling it to cult classic status. Unlike the subtle nature and comedy of Goretta’s film, “Maitresse’s” hard-edged story of a burglar who breaks into the home of a dominatrix and manages to become not only her assistant but also her lover once he realizes that her employment as a sex worker is primarily driven by the need to support her children may have played more into the growing decadent yet pragmatic mindset of the 1970s, than the understated, yet no less important message about love inside of Goretta’s work.

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