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.

1972’s “We Won’t Grow Old Together,” The Second Unsentimental Feature of Maurice Pialat

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Marlene Jobert and Jean Yanne

Please bear with me, as the first part of this review is a long overdue appreciation post for someone who should’ve received more credit for shaping the film scene here in Boston. Needless to say, 2008 was a tough year for the film here as Bo Smith, the 21 year Director of the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Film Program at the Museum of Fine Arts, left the MFA to head the Denver Film Society for what would sadly be less than a year. Bo revitalized a dying scene of truly independent and foreign film programming here back in the 1980s and nurtured the growth of a multitude of festivals featuring work from all over the world, including The Turkish Film Festival, The Boston Iranian Film Festival, The Palestinian Film Festival, and the festival where we first met, the inaugural 1995 French Film Festival. Though Bo was always consistently clad in the finest of clothes, he walked up to a grubby, skater shorts and ska t-shirt wearing Generoso after the screening of the ninth film I saw at the festival and asked why was I there. We then engaged in a lengthy discussion on the state of French cinema, which I guessed surprised him a bit because, between films, I was playing a lot of very loud reggae through my headphones. After that exchange, Bo would frequently stop by during the remainder of the festival and ask my opinion on what I had just seen, and in turn, during the conversations that followed, I grew my appreciation of his immense knowledge and love of cinema.

Cut away to 2003, shortly after the passing of Maurice Pialat, Bo curated a complete retrospective of the work of Pialat, a director he greatly admires and resembled himself as a director who also never seemed to be remotely concerned with the commercial success of his output. By 2003, I had only seen Pialat’s most well known film, 1983’s “A Nos Amours,” and although I admired it greatly, I had never seen the rest of Pialat’s work, so based on Bo’s suggestion, I attended all of the retrospective he put together. All, except the film that I am writing about today, 1972’s “We Won’t Grow Old Together,” which was recently screened at another of this area’s institutions, The Harvard Film Archive as part of a series entitled, “Furious Cinema ’70-‘77.”

More than almost all of the films in this series at Harvard, the word “furious” is most aptly applied to “We Won’t Grow Old Together,” the story of Jean (Jean Yanne), a film cameraman and his obsessive relationship with the younger woman whom he is having a bit more than a little rocky six-year affair with, Catherine (Marlène Jobert). Jean brutally lashes out at and reconciles so many times with Catherine that it borders on the comedic, and at times it even resembles a more violent turbulence that Albert Brooks’ neurotic film editor inflicts on Kathryn Harrold in Brooks’ 1978 film,“Modern Romance.” The plot of “We Won’t Grow Old Together” can be surmised easily. You are there, intimately watching a relationship spiral out of control, but this film is like so many of Pialat’s best works in that it is so much more than the plot. As film critic Kent Jones once explained:

“Even more than Jean Eustache […] Pialat was an irascibly private artist, charting a twisted, crook-backed path with each new movie, almost always emerging with works in which the mind-bending vitality of immediate experience trumps all belief systems, allegiances, plans. […] More than Cassavetes, more than Renoir, Pialat wanted every frame of celluloid bearing his name to be marked by the here and the now.

Jean is relentless in his unsavory treatment of Catherine and she is as relentless in her tolerance of Jean’s somewhat grotesque behavior to the point of insanity. The conflict reaches such a insane mess, that even Jean’s beleaguered wife Françoise (Macha Méril) calmly counsels her husband during about his frustration with dealing with Catherine. This bizarre treatment of this relationship is portrayed as it is with most relationships, romantic or otherwise, in many of Pialat’s films, and that is a portrayal that is completely devoid of a divisive plot or sentimentality. There is no hoping for an understanding between characters or even a moment off of the ropes; you are there to witness a few sensational actors destroy one another for the better part of one hundred minutes, and you are enthralled with the process, though this process was not always appreciated by Pialat’s actors. It needs to be noted that even after winning the best actor’s award for his portrayal in “We Won’t Grow Old Together” at the 1972 Cannes Film Festival, Jean Yanne castigated the film. “I think it’s a lousy story,” he said, in part, noting also, “If I’m any good in the part, believe me, it was completely involuntary.”

The Opening Scene Of “We Won’t Grow Old Together”

Similar to Gerard Depardieu’s character, Loulou and his treatment of Isabelle Huppert’s Nelly in the 1980 Pialat film, “Loulou,” your only recourse is to watch Pialat’s characters crack and get glued together over and over again and it’s this kind of elliptical style editing, which is a Pialat trademark, and this is also why you either love or hate his work. My feelings about Pialat’s work can be summed up by a conversation with Bo Smith  after the MFA retrospective screening of “Loulou” back in 2003.  Bo came up to me and asked me as what I thought of the film and I responded: “It’s a bit like the stab in the gut that Loulou gets in the middle of the film, Loulou takes it, it knocks him down, but soon he just sucks it up and moves on.”

Though it has been many years since Bo Smith has walked or more like bicycled through the streets of Boston, I will be a bit sentimental here unlike Mr. Pialat and wish him a long overdue thank you for all of the great films he brought to town.