Stavisky… (1974, Alain Resnais)

Watched this the same month as Trouble In Paradise, not having guessed how connected the two would be – the book/script of Stavisky even mentions that they stole shot ideas from Paradise. This one seems like a correction to the other, set during the same year with some of the same reference points (such as Trotsky) but here the upper-class gentleman thief is revealed to be a sham, and rather than escaping at the end to start over with his true love, the thief ends up dead, his widow in prison. The final shot is the chauffeur (of the period Rolls they drive everywhere) placing a bouquet of white flowers for her outside the prison.

Bright and lively music by Stephen Sondheim (who had already won three Tony awards in the 70′s) kept the doomed inevitability away until it was too late. Sondheim had already won three Tony awards in the 1970′s by the time Stavisky came out. It’s one of the very few times he’s written music (more than one song, anyway) for films – the other cases were Warren Beatty’s Reds (another movie featuring Trotsky!) and Dick Tracy.

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Another story by Jorge Semprún, who wrote the exile-themed The War Is Over. One of Stavisky’s associates (Juan Montalvo, a slimy guy who hits on Arlette but can provide Serge with lots of money) was funding the attempted coup in Spain which led to the Spanish Civil War. In researching the film Semprun found that the same police inspector (named Gardet in the movie) assigned to watch over Leon Trotsky in France was also assigned to report on Stavisky, so Trotsky’s exile was written into the movie, as witnessed by a kid named Michel Grandville. The movie is bookended with Trotsky – first arriving in France, beginning his exile from Russia, and at the end after the Stavisky scandal, being moved further into exile, far from Paris, his political influence feared by the conservatives. Stavisky himself is a Russian Jew in exile – so there are a few connections to the previous film.

The paperback book says it “represents the final scenario” for the shooting of the film, and the intro by Richard Seaver addresses something I had wondered about after reading The War Is Over and believing that Semprun’s script was shot word-for-word with very little added by Resnais: “Once the subject is established, the writer does an initial draft, or treatment, after which writer and director discuss it scene by scene, often line by line, in excruciating detail, until the distinction between writer and director blurs or disappears.” So in fact the books by Semprun represent the collaborative vision of he and Resnais – my beloved auteur is no longer in peril.

The real Serge Alexandre Stavisky was involved in ever-larger finance fraud and was connected with people high up in French government, and when this was made public in January 1934 it led to riots, deaths (incl. the semi-suicide of Stavisky himself), trials for his friends and widow (all acquitted the following year) and political upheaval. Not knowing much about French politics, the Wikipedia articles are hard to follow, but it seems the ultra-conservatives tried to overthrow the leftists in power – eventually one leftist resigned, a conservative replaced him, and somehow socialists ended up in power.

Belmondo, a decade after Pierrot le fou and still looking the same:
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Jean-Paul Belmondo as Stavisky/Alexandre is dazzling, a con-man with absolute confidence in himself. Arlette is his glamorous wife, and he’s surrounded by associates, some complicit in his underhanded dealings like assistant Borelli and Serge’s in-pocket doctor (Michael “Thomas” Lonsdale) who keeps declaring Stavisky unfit to stand trial for a six-year-old fraud offense… and some are just content to spend time with Stavisky, enjoying his company and not asking questions, like friend Baron Raoul (an outstanding Charles Boyer).

Arlette: Anny Duperey’s debut was seven years earlier in Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her.
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The book says “Barol Raoul’s looks, gestures, diction and bearing are those one would expect a baron to possess in those films where barons play a part.” That’s hilarious… I hope those are the character notes they gave to Charles Boyer.

This was French superstar Boyer’s second-to-last film. I saw him as the star of Fritz Lang’s not-so-good Liliom. He is the second actor I’ve seen lately (after Maurice Chevalier) claimed to be the inspiration for Pepe le Pew.
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As Stavisky’s right-hand man, beloved character actor Francois Périer of Nights of Cabiria, Orpheus, Le Samourai, also narrated some Chris Marker films. From the book: “Albert Borelli’s face is impassive, but he has a sharp eye. He is a man of few words but not of few thoughts.”
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No wonder I had trouble with inspectors Bonny and Boussard – it’s complicated. Boussard arrested Stavisky years ago, and a couple years afterwards Serge became Boussard’s “informant” – actually Serge pays Boussard to keep an eye on things inside the police department, and the informant thing is just a front so they can meet. Bonny has it out for Serge, hires the blackmailer who comes to the theater during auditions to extort money from Stavisky by threatening to expose his past, and later engineers the police raid during which Stavisky shoots himself. Plus I always have to look hard to tell which Inspector is which, since they look and dress the same.

Inspectors Boussard (left, Marcel Cuvelier, also played an inspector in The War Is Over) and Bonny (right, Claude Rich, star of Je t’aime, je t’aime):
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Bad Boy Bonny:
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Michel Grandville (Jacques Spiesser of The Man Who Sleeps and Black and White in Color) and Erna Wolfgang (Silvia Badescu), who auditions for a part at Stavisky’s theater (he reads with her, playing a ghost – see quote below):
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Lonsdale, after “Serge Alexandre” tells him to get rid of Stavisky and his problems: “The person he once was has become someone else: a ghost he despises. But a ghost who worries him.” And later: “To understand Stavisky sometimes you have to forget files. You have to dream of him and to imagine his dreams.”

Dream doctor Michel Lonsdale:
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Gérard Depardieu got his break as a star just two months earlier. Here he has one scene as an excited young inventor trying to get Stavisky to invest in his product:
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And back to Erna Wolfgang. I just liked this shot.
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One more look at Thomas:
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I wasn’t in love with the movie after I watched it, seemed like a really well-done portrayal of a controversial man with great acting and an over-complicated plot, but reading the book afterwards cleared up all the characters and the structure of the whole thing, and thinking back on the story, acting and photography, I’m now liking this better than The War Is Over. Nobody here is a good guy – not even Bonny, who goes against police corruption but for personal & political reasons – but the movie doesn’t judge them, or go into the details of the scandal. It just gets inside their characters and shows where the scandal came from, how one guy’s belief that he could fake his way into the upper echelon ended up shaking the country.

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