I like French Films! Pretentious Boring French Films!
ITEM! My site gets results. At TIFF 2006, I wrote in a review of Patrice Leconte’s MY BEST FRIEND:
One more thing. Patrice … I am recommending your latest film. Now can we please get MONSIEUR HIRE (the movie that won you my eternal esteem) out on North American home video in something other than an out-of-print pan-and-scan VHS. thanksbud
I therefore officially take credit for MONSIEUR HIRE’s coming out on North American DVD in November, which I had long been waiting for because it was the first foreign film I saw more than once in a theater. I bought it first day it was available and watched it a couple of weeks later. I remember being utterly beguiled back in 1990 by the notion that a snooty subtitled movie in an incomprehensible language could be such an accessible, watchable, tense thriller. So tense indeed, that it gave me an entirely pleasurable lesson as a young cinephile about patience (it obviously wasn’t a thrill-ride like THE TERMINATOR). But I hadn’t seen HIRE for more than a decade but, I found, it stood up, as good as ever (and Leconte has never since come close to it).
The comparisons with Hitchcock and REAR WINDOW were obvious (both movies center on a man who looks out a window and witnesses a crime, though Hire is a suspect while LB Jeffries is not), but HIRE didn’t suffer by the comparison, rather it was enriched by it. Indeed, to use the REAR WINDOW template, HIRE begins (so to speak, not literally) with the shot when Thorvald breaks the 4th wall and looks at Jeff/the audience. This is one of the most unsettling moments in movie history, but HIRE takes it for granted. WINDOW is about voyeurism against someone unwitting; HIRE is the post-modern remake, about voyeurism on someone who knows, and Sandrine Bonnaire knows how to play up her beauty without coming across slutty or affected.
Michael Nyman’s score, which is not as ubiquitous as the trailer below makes it seem (my memory was faulty on that count), remains one of my all-time favorites, ideal for this kind of subtle low-key, and ultimately sad movie about a psychologically-downtrodden man who gives up everything in a bid for love. If you can resist this trailer, you are hereby banned from reading this site:
ITEM! I hope to get more results from recommending another French movie from the early 90s that I fear may go down the memory hole. Back in 1991, I saw this twisted, black semi-comedy three times in theaters and it topped my Ten Best list. I have never even seen it crop up on TV since, and it was only released on North American DVD this past summer (with a very misleading box … this picture I put up here is the theatrical poster from back then). None of the principal name credits at the IMDb page here meant anything to me. Director Jerome Boivin has worked near-exclusively on French TV since. And the lead “actor” has had a hard time getting roles since … because he is a dog. C’est BAXTER … mefiez-vous du chien qui pense.
I have persuaded Paul Clark to see BAXTER as part of his Christmas “gift of blogging” and in the ensuing discussion, one other film-geek pal (Scott Black) acknowledged it as a personal “sort-of-favorite” (we shall not speak of the heathen who called the film slightly underwhelming).
Even though I haven’t seen the movie in a decade-and-a-half, a lot of things have stayed with me over the years. The plot basically has Baxter going through several human owners in his bid to find the perfect master, and this picaresque created, for my money, the movies’s most memorable animal who is not a four-legged hairy human in disguise like Bugs Bunny. The key is the radically subjective approach Boivin takes, identifying us with Baxter (with the exception of one plot thread). It’s not just a matter of putting the camera at dog-eye level, looking up at the humans, though Boivin does a lot of that. But also the omnipresent first-person voiceover narration, which puts us inside Baxter’s head while the fact the character never talks in the drama per se maintains an appropriate objective distance.
Personification was obviously unavoidable (the movie would be unintelligible if there were none), but the details of that narration seem like something a dog would really say in his own internal voice. First, there’s what Baxter says — he doesn’t quite get a lot of what his human owners are doing; he is more fascinated by smells and sounds than words (the movie often relies on the fact that we understand the human characters better than Baxter does); he is preternaturally curious, to the point of jealousy; but he is unsure of where his instincts sometimes take him (like sex). Second, there’s how Baxter says it, as voiced by Maxime Leroux. He has a low, gruff voice, confident in his instincts, but with a perverse edge that indicates that killing, for food or otherwise, is never far from his mind. Obviously, this was unintentional, but I think Baxter’s speaking French helps by making his voice more alien (to me) than the identical voiceover in English would be. The sound and the vocal quality prevail over the meaning of the words, like with a dog’s barks.¹
Then there’s Baxter himself. Obviously, it’s fairly meaningless to talk about the dog’s performance, but he looks perfect for this role. A bull terrier, he is neither a toy nor a vicious beast. His monocolored coal-black eyes set off against his white body, his lengthy snout and his high ears ready to prick up bespeaking a cool surface calmness with a potential for major contrast when he becomes a
man dog of action (which is why the DVD box, with its closeup of a bared-tooth pit bull in full attack mode, with the tag line “he’ll love you to death,” is so misleading. That box is selling CUJO; BAXTER is colder, more elegant and more disturbing than that.)
Here is a 8-minute sample of the film available on YouTube, of which the first 3-4 minutes are the most “typical.” Continue past that if you like, but if you watch it to the very last second, there’s a MAJOR spoiler right when the clip ends. Consider yourself warned.
¹ Or any other language I cannot speak … this is not a shot at the cheese-eating surrender monkeys. In fact, if a Francophone were to ask, I would advise him to watch BAXTER with the DVD soundtrack set to English, Latin, Swahili — any language he doesn’t speak — and follow along through the mediated form of French subtitles.