Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Un singe en hiver (Henri Verneuil, 1962)

Henri Verneuil certainly doesn’t rank among the front rank of French filmmakers, but his films are never dull, and are often surprisingly ambitious on multiple levels. Un singe en hiver starts out as a mixed bag, an impressive recreation of WW2 occupation and attack undermined by a cringe-inducingly scene-chewing Jean Gabin drunk act. But then we’re fifteen years in the future, and Gabin’s character, Albert Quentin, is in his fifteenth year of sobriety, and almost perishing from the boredom of it all, running an inn in a small town where few people visit: no wonder then, that his resolve might crack when a guest like Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Gabriel Fouquet shows up, another soul preoccupied with past losses and glories who in the present finds full expression only at the bottom of a glass. The film is dotted with odd character sketches – a boarding school principal who pretends she can only speak English; an eccentric store owner with a story to accompany every item of inventory – which we eventually understand as part of a philosophy of tolerance, of an understanding of what it takes to get through an uneventful existence: some of us bake the fantasy release into our very beings, for others it accumulates into a grand pyrotechnic release (the film may be implying that war itself can be partially understood in these terms) after which we may more readily settle into our long emotional winter. The grandly bombastic dialogue, by Michel Audiard, may not be generally naturalistic or persuasive, but it’s seldom ignorable either. As so often, the existential plight of the male counts for much more than that of the female – Quentin’s wife is allowed only the briefest moments of self-indulgence before returning to her designated role of quietly unquestioning support, and the film’s other main female character only exists to facilitate his outbursts, a role into which she slots back with barely a hitch after the fifteen year break.

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