Elevator To The Gallows (Louis Malle, 1959)

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I reviewed Louis Malle’s debut for Oregon Artswatch back in September. Click on the link for the full review.

It begins in classic noir fashion: urgent declarations of love cross a telephone line before Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) sets out to commit the perfect murder. At least, it might have been perfect. But having dispatched the man who is both his boss and his lover’s husband as he sat in his office, then preparing to drive away, Tavernier realizes he has left a crucial piece of evidence behind. Returning to retrieve it, he is trapped in the building’s elevator when the power is cut off for the weekend.

L’Amour Existe (Maurice Pilat, 1960)

 

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L’Amour Existe, an early short by Maurice Pialat, is a profound, if bitter, marvel. A narrated meditation on the Parisian suburbs, beginning with the director’s own memories of growing up, it builds into a broader dissection of life on the fringes of the city.

The film is built on juxtapositions, in it’s own structure, which matches gorgeous black and white cinematography to a polemical voiceover, and a Georges Delerue soundtrack to an industrial sound design, and in its narrative, where broken glass is compared to jewels, ancient walls nestle next to modern blocks, playground slides turn into dirty hillsides, and advertising for apartments for the upwardly mobile segue into footage of dirty slum dwellings for which ‘All Modern Comforts’ are promised.

The trauma of World War Two is never far away. The film opens with Pialat describing the heavy bombing of his own neighborhood, during which, as a child, he lost a good friend. Via the image of a horse training on land once used by the German military for maneuvers, the director turns his attention to the traces of the occupation that he sees in contemporary life. Homes in new tower blocks are “concentration camp living on easy installments” while “builders reveal their nostalgia for the Todt-style architecture of Nazi days”. The most poignant reminder of the past comes without words. The camera follows a gang of teenage boys on bikes to a patch of scrubland where they engage in a brutal fight, kicking, punching, slamming wooden crates into each others heads. Pilat cuts from the melee to capture a street sign lying battered on the ground. On the sign is inscribed Rue Oradour-Sur-Glane. In The Other Paris (FSG, 2015) Luc Sante reminds us that “the street had been named after that village in the Limousin where, in June 1944, the Waffen SS massacred 642 men, women, and children – they had targeted another, similarly named village nearby but had gone to the wrong address”*.

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It is the spiritually bereft, bureaucratized nature of life that vexes Pialat most. “Boredom is the principal erosive agent in these impoverished landscapes”. Paris has less green space than any other city in the world, he claims. Yet more trees are cut down. People are housed in pens based not only on their class, but also their age and their status as parents. In a monologue, a list of statistics related to the lack of educational and cultural opportunities are recounted. Amongst these is given the number of keystrokes struck by a typist in one year: 15 million. Life here is presented as a deadening path from meaningless work (complete with lengthy commute) to neglect in retirement, “a lifetime spent buying everything retail, while selling oneself wholesale.”

But even for its short twenty minutes, this film would not be so compelling but for the poetry it offers: the empt cinema seats of Pialat’s youth, a reflection cast in shattered glass, the lone swimmer diving before a passing commuter train and, the way a change of angle can change everything. Power transformed into despair.

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L’Amour Existe is included as an extra on the Criterion Collection’s edition of Pialat’s feature debut L’Enfance Nue.