16 August 2008

Monsieur Hire
the fine line between love and obsessionMonsieur Hire -- DVD cover
directed by Patrice Leconte
1989 / France / 79 minutes / colour
in French, with English subtitles

Patrice Leconte’s 1989 film Monsieur Hire, which was just released on DVD last year in the US by Kino, is a small masterpiece of a thriller that has stood the passage of time very well indeed. By allowing the characters to reveal themselves with subtlety and patience, and stressing their struggles (inner and outer) and their attempts to live with and liberate themselves from these struggles, rather than relying on setting and artifice, the director has removed the stifling effects of chronological and spatial imprisonment that mar so many otherwise well-made films. Monsieur Hire is thus a film with a contemporary feel, but the foundations of the story and the humans who populate it could easily be transplanted into any era – love, loneliness, insecurity, the suspicion of anything / anyone different, desperation, guilt, erotic obsession, scheming and betrayal are all present here, manipulating, infecting and challenging their mortal carriers, driving them to actions that lead to consequences none of them could foresee.

Leconte wrote his script based on a Georges Simenon novel (Les fiançailles de M. Hire, 1933) which had been filmed once before, as Panique, in 1947, by Julien Duvivier – in fact, it was Leconte’s viewing of the older version on television that first interested him in the project. Rather than attempting a ‘remake’ of Duvivier’s film, the director explains (in a short 1991 interview included on the DVD) that his intention was rather to create ‘a new adaptation’ which, while remaining respectful to Simenon’s story, became ‘…a more personal work, expressing my own ideas, also to express something that’s very interesting to me, and troubling, which is erotic desire.’ The film lives and breathes with the success of Leconte’s intentions, but in a way that stops far short of being erotically explicit or exploitive, relying instead on the stunning performances of the two leads (Michel Blanc as Monsieur Hire and Sandrine Bonnaire as Alice) to convey rich feelings with a dark gentleness that belies the powerful emotions seething beneath the surfaces of their characters’ external façades. Leconte and his principals accomplish this without resorting to any visceral sex scenes – the single short flash of nudity that occurs when Hire is depicted in a sauna at a high-class brothel is over almost before it begins.
Monsieur Hire 001
The film opens with natural ambient sounds over the credits, which roll on a solid black background (the end credits are presented in a similar manner, effectively framing the film itself and thereby audibly ‘placing’ it in everyday reality). Music begins only with a fade to a scene that presages the voyeuristic aspects that will be developed more fully later on – the pale body of a young woman lies on the ground, almost in an attitude of peaceful sleep, the camera viewing her from a level very near the ground. A man – revealed as a police detective, who is never identified by name – looks down on her, then with a nod instructs his assistants to cover her with a sheet. We next see him sitting in her apartment, and hear his thoughts in a voiceover: ‘Pierrette died on her 22nd birthday. That’s no age to die, people say, as though there were a right age.’ He wonders about why she had to die, and who might have killed her, as he goes through the things in her apartment – a type of post-mortem voyeurism in itself – and muses that ‘…no one will hold her in their arms again...’, giving voice to the importance of touch, which will also be repeated throughout the course of the film. The scene shifts to the morgue, with her corpse on a table covered to the shoulders with a sheet, her hands folded in false repose in front of her. He kneels beside her, obviously moved, and places both of his hands over hers, leaning in for a closer look at her face before standing and, in a more procedural but still touching gesture, snaps a photo of her lifeless face.

Monsieur Hire is a lonely man in the deepest, most painful and desperate sense – he occupies a small, neat, sparsely furnished apartment. His job as a tailor allows him to manifest his talent and creativity, but only to a certain extent – the work he does seems professional and proficient, elegant in a simple way, but it is a solitary pursuit, done in a small shop that is inhabited only by him, the occasional customer, and a small cage of white mice he keeps as pets. The depths of his feelings are never displayed overtly by Michel Blanc – his portrayal, however, is rich in the subtlety with which he allows the viewer to know Hire more intimately and effectively than if he were writing his own biography, or pouring out his soul to a therapist. Blanc manages to convey more with an almost imperceptible shift of his eyes than most actors express with blatantly obvious displays of emotion. The tenderness with which he removes a dead mouse from amongst the others in the cage, gently wrapping the body in a carefully chosen remnant left by his work, then dropping it, almost ceremoniously, into the river, is very moving.

Hire’s neighbours revile and distrust him. The children who live in his apartment building regularly make him the target of their taunts (he sits stoically at his rollup desk, eating a poached egg, hardly reacting at all when they pound on his door, then run away, laughing, down the stairs). Yet our first glimpse of him, in one of the film’s earliest scenes, shows him extending kindness to one of them, his hand on the head of a little girl, gently directing her gaze toward a doorway, having her count to 30, in an apparent attempt to cure her of a headache, or perhaps a fear, by distracting her in a relaxing manner. When she finishes counting, he removes his hand, bends slightly to address her, comfortingly saying, ‘See…? All gone now.’ He then walks away, headed to his tailor shop. She looks after him with a gaze that is so unaffectedly childlike that it could not possibly be coaxed from a performer, a mixture of gratitude and unease – the man who has been the butt of so many pranks has shown her a moment of honest compassion, and she doesn’t quite understand it.
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Monsieur Hire 004
His aching solitude finds an outlet in his furtive, frequent viewing of Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), a beautiful young woman who lives in the apartment building across the way. Rarely closing her curtains, she goes about her life unaware that she is being watched – for hours every day, apparently – by the solitary Hire from his darkened window. She casually dresses and undresses, bathes, does her chores, and conducts a love affair with her fiancé Emile (Luc Thuillier), all under Hire’s steady, unflinching gaze. It is only by a chance flash of lightning one night, illuming his face in an almost ghostlike manner, that she sees him in his window and realises that she is being watched. Shocked and frightened at first, she gradually becomes fascinated with this voyeuristic stranger, and sets up a situation through which – to Hire’s subtly revealed but obvious horror and discomfort – the two of them meet face to face.
Monsieur Hire 007
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The detective investigating the murder of the young woman turns his attentions early to the reclusive, almost universally despised Hire, his instincts aroused by the fact that the man is a loner, neither liked nor trusted by those who live around him. He attempts to coerce a reaction by asking why he is disliked so much. Hire relates, ‘They don’t. It’s true. But then, I don’t like them.’ Pressed to explain, he adds, 'I’m not very sociable or friendly, and they don’t like that. Conversations stop when I approach and resume after I’ve passed by. It doesn’t bother me. I prefer silence. I don’t like to talk.’ The detective nods and observes, ‘You’re a strange guy.’ Hire responds, ‘I don’t agree. See? You’re just like the rest of them.’ He then discovers that he’s under suspicion – the detective mentions the murder and the fact that a cab driver saw a man in a dark overcoat running toward Hire’s apartment building. The tailor shows no emotion, merely commenting that ‘Life is horrible’. He then gets in a subtle jab of his own, saying, after the investigator has apparently faked sudden pain in order to elicit a reaction, ‘It can’t be easy to still be just a detective at your age.’ It hits home – the expression on the face of the policeman reveals this.

The detective continues to question Hire frequently, returning again and again, both to the shop and to the small apartment, sometimes almost brutally hounding and embarrassing him, in one instance forcing him, in the presence of several of his neighbours, who have gathered out of morbid curiosity, and very likely in the hope of seeing him squirm, to reenact the scene witnessed by the cab driver. One of his neighbours goes so far as to put out a foot to trip him, causing him to stumble and fall to the ground. When the cabbie admits that he cannot say with total certainty that Hire was the man he saw that night, the detective calls off the ‘show’ and the crowd disperses.
Monsieur Hire 005
The police investigation reveals that Hire has a record (just how long ago the offense occurred is not revealed) – casually showing up at a bowling alley where Hire has apparently been engaged to draw a crowd by exhibiting his skill at the game, the detective confronts him with it, ‘…six months for indecent assault. That’s not going to help your case.’ The tailor’s face is impassive, and the detective continues to attempt to pry information for him, questioning him about his name, which Hire freely admits was changed from Hirovitch by his father and grandfather. Continuing, believing that he is dealing with a ‘simple’ sexual predator, the policeman attempts to shock a reaction from Hire by asking, with a smile, ‘Tell me, Monsieur Hire…how long is it since you came inside a woman?’ The tailor makes no reply, his face revealing nothing beyond a brief sidelong glance.

The friendship that grows between Alice and her voyeur is a strange one – her feelings of shock and danger seem to disappear rather quickly, replaced by expressions of understanding, accompanied by a revelation that she actually finds herself enjoying being watched. The love that Hire has felt for her for some time grows even stronger – and while initially he attempts to remain emotionally aloof, he begins to let his feelings for her become known, a little at a time.
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At one point, he takes her to the brothel he has regularly visited, recounting the repeated scenes with various girls in detail – his emphasis on the subtle, tactile aspects of their contact illustrate that the sex act itself is not the ultimate goal for him. His life is such an isolated existence that he values simple, honest touch above other aspects of physical intimacy. He tells Alice that he has stopped coming to spend time with the prostitutes because he has fallen in love with her, and doesn’t need the attentions of these women any more. His detailed description of his experiences at the brothel shock and repulse her, but at the same time it’s easy to see that she’s touched by his honesty, and that she believes him when he professes his love for her. His narrative implies that events were almost exactly the same each time, and that the women with whom he spent time there were interchangeable to him because the services they offered were not felt on a deeper level, making this activity an easy thing for him to forego.

Emile, Alice's fiancé, is apparently involved, or has been involved, in some sort of activity that has caused him to be under the gaze of the police…yet another type of voyeurism. The tension he feels under this scrutiny begins to loom larger in their relationship, causing emotional cracks to appear. At one point, he assures Alice that he wants to marry her – when she reminds him of this later, telling him ‘…the time is now’, he hedges, citing his problems and uncertain future. As her relationship with Emile becomes less satisfying and more unpromising, we see Alice apparently begin to rely emotionally more on Hire. The lonely man finds himself beginning to believe that the two of them might share a future together, and to think more solidly along those lines as the film comes to its climax. Rather than reveal any more about the plot here, I’ll just state that like all well-made thrillers, there are twists and turns along the way that are quite skillfully and believably made real by the director and his cast.

More than simply presenting the story itself, the film gives the viewer plenty of cause to contemplate the fine line between love and obsession, along with all of the grey areas that surround these two states. Hire’s voyeurism of Alice, while inarguably disturbing, is pursued by him with a pure heart, with an almost meditative calmness and reflection. He is never seen engaging in physical self-gratification in relation to his voyeurism, nor is it ever implied. Just as the early scene with the little girl illustrates, I believe, that Hire is in not a sexual predator, per se, another, depicting him at work in his shop setting the hem of a dress for a young female customer, shows that him visibly undistracted by the legs of the young woman (the rest of whom is never shown) standing on the fitting stool just inches from his face. The consummate professional, he concentrates on his work, without an iota of lust in his eyes or in his expression, simply asking her to turn a bit now and then so he can continue to progress around the hem of the dress. This is an extremely complex character whose inner thoughts and feelings are not clumsily conveyed by over-emotive acting. The skill with which Michel Blanc fleshes out his part is immense, on a career-defining level, quietly and completely stepping into the shoes and soul of a man whose pain and loneliness have manifested themselves in facets that open slowly to the audience. It’s almost like watching a flower unfold – and the beauty, despite the darker sides of the character, is undeniable. Sandrine Bonnaire – who has given many standout performances in her career, including a veritable tour-de-force as the young vagrant in Agnès Varda’s 1985 masterpiece Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi), is absolutely perfect here as well. Patrice Leconte has brought forth something very special in Monsieur Hire – a finely-crafted, intelligently written and well-acted thriller, to be sure…but a treasure of much deeper proportions that will reveal more and inspire more thought and contemplation with repeated viewings, even after the ending is known to an open-minded and appreciative audience.

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