Thursday, September 6, 2018

Un nomme La Rocca (Jean Becker, 1961)

It’s a bit strange that the title of Jean Becker’s Un nomme La Rocca takes the form of an assertion of identity, because the character barely has any coherence at all, beyond what flows from Jean-Paul Belmondo’s embodiment of him (which is obviously way more than nothing). After an almost Leone-like prologue, the movie takes La Rocca to Paris, where he effortlessly muscles in on the gambling and bar scene, shooting one antagonist and pushing others around like playing cards. That comes to a sudden end after he tangles with some American deserters and gets sent to jail, not inconvenient anyway as he’d been musing on how to spring his incarcerated best friend Xavier from there. The movie spends a while in conventional behind-bars mode, until the two men volunteer for a land mine clearing team in exchange for reduced sentences, and events shift into sweaty, stripped-down, existentially-questioning mode, pushing Xavier in particular to the limits of his tolerance. The final chapter, a couple of years later, has the men free again, maintaining an apparently chaste household with Xavier’s sister (La Rocca’s sexual prowess, emphasized earlier on, is off the film’s agenda by this point) and aiming to buy a farm property; Xavier taps his old shady connections to get the money, leading to a final tragedy, and La Rocca barely has any role in this final act other than to react, lament and ultimately walk away. The movie has a colourful supporting cast, dotted with portrayals that vividly impact before being summarily swept aside; the opening credits inform us it was shot at the Jean-Pierre Melville studios, and Becker’s direction sometimes feels Melvillian, although mostly only to the extent of a style, not a worldview or investigative method. Unless, that is, in the year after A bout de souffle, the title somehow means us to reflect on the emptiness of such filmic labels and narratives even as we succumb to them.

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